Bush, Orthodoxy, & Damon Linker

From the always insightful and provocative Daniel Larison:

As I noted long ago, and as Ross has suggested again this week, it makes no sense to blame Christian orthodoxy or traditional Christianity for the religiously-tinged ideology of the Bush administration and the resulting failures of this ideology’s optimistic and hubristic approach to the world. It is no accident that the most strident and early critics of the Bush administration hailed from traditionalist Catholic and Orthodox circles that make Linker’s bete noire of First Things look like the relatively liberal, ecumenist forum that it is. Mr. Bush espoused a horrifyingly heterodox religious vision, one far more akin to the messianic Americanism that forms part of what Bacevich has called national security ideology than it is to anything that could fairly be called orthodoxy.

….

This has created a predicament for the majority of conservative Christians who tended to go along with, if not actively defend, Mr. Bush’s acts and rhetoric. Having identified strongly with him, these Christians–Linker’s “champions of orthodoxy”–ensured that his errors would be imputed to their beliefs, even though Bush had a very different set of assumptions. It seems more reasonable to conclude that the “champions of orthodoxy” were undermining orthodoxy to the extent that they aligned themselves with the gnostic Bush rather than judging the failure of the Bush political project to be a demonstration of the flaws in an alliance between orthodoxy and politics. It might be that somewhere in all of this there is a “cautionary tale about what happens to politics and faith” when they combine in certain ways, but what does religious orthodoxy have to do with any of this? There is a far better argument to be made that the lesson to be learned is that greater fidelity to orthodoxy would have avoided many of the errors of the Bush Era by grounding those Christians who identified with Bush politically in the stable and sobering truths of theologically conservative Christianity.

If Linker insists that Rod acknowledge that traditional Christians in previous eras defended moral injustices in the name of resisting political and social change, he cannot credibly maintain that the Christians who backed and defended a proponent of global democratic revolution can still be counted as orthodox or traditional for the purposes of making criticisms about the mixing of religion and politics today. Linker hopes that Ross will come away with the idea that more traditional and orthodox Christians should “keep their distance from political power,” but this makes sense only if you believe that it was proximity to power rather than the perverse and misguided ideas that were prevailing at the center of power that mattered. Perhaps if there had been more genuinely traditional and orthodox voices whispering to Mr. Bush that he was mortal, warning that pride is one of the most dangerous sins, or explaining to him that chiliasm and gnosticism were grave errors, he would not have been so ready to embark on path of mad revolutionary warfare and global transformation. Orthodoxy had no influence, but naturally Linker believes that it still had too much, which pretty well sums up his misreading of the religious and political landscape today.

I agree with much of this, and it strikes me that Bush was heterodox both as a conservative and in the sense Larison describes. Many orthodox Christians (and orthodox conservatives) who supported him were disappointed by his heterodoxy, but they nevertheless are blamed for his failures. In one sense, that’s entirely fair. If your guy does well in politics, you look smart. If not, then not. But it does suggest Linker’s campaign to drive orthodoxy out of public discourse, to be replaced with some form of mushy Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is misguided. Whatever else one believes about MTD, it’s hardly a hedge against, well, much of anything other than theocracy.

12 Responses to Bush, Orthodoxy, & Damon Linker

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Is there anything about Linker to take seriously? As far as I can tell he did an ideological about face in hopes of a fast buck, and that is the alpha and the omega of the analysis needed regarding that gentleman. As for Bush, I doubt if History will be as harsh in its judgment of him as Mr. Larison and his paleocon cronies would wish.

  • Agreed, Jonathan… what we mean by a “conservative” today is better described as a “conservative liberal” in the intellectual currents of the last three centuries, as you, Levin, MacIntyre and others have noted.

    Of course, there is a robust conversation among Catholics regarding the degree to which the broader liberal tradition (which would include what we normally call “conservatism” in the US today) is ultimately compatible with Catholicism.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    I daresay that Burke during the period of the French Revolution with his calls for an all out war against the French Revolutionaries might well have been denounced by the spiritual forebears of the current paleocons who seem to look upon isolationism as a key conservative virtue. Of course, it is always dangerous to take conservatives of one generation and merely assume that they would agree with a particular faction of conservatism in a current controversy. As Burke was fond of noting, circumstance is everything. For most of his career Burke was considered by most of his contemporaries to be anything but a conservative, especially since the term wasn’t used in its modern sense until 1819. As a whig, Burke was normally considered to be in the avant-garde of political thought in England, until his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Of course nothing had changed about Burke or his thinking, but the circumstances of his times had.

  • I guess my question would be: Did the MTD vibe in some of Bush’s major speeches result from Bush being a morally therapudic deist at heart (and forming policies that were “deist” or “gnostic”) or is MTD is a sort of lowest common denominator of vaguelly religious discourse in our country, and thus something utilized by speechwriters on both sides of the aisle in order to draw on religious ideals without being hit with religious divisions.

    While I cracked a smile as Ross Douthat’s description of Bush’s second inaugural address as “moral theraputic deism goes to war”, I think Linker is taking it too far by failing to distinguish between rhetoric and action.

    Bush did lay out a universal semi-theological principle in that he argued that as humans we have a universal longing for freedom, and that as Americans it is both virtuous and in our interests to foster freedom and democracy throughout the world, but for all the hysteria that caused among those worried about “theocons”, this didn’t actually result in the US getting embroiled in any new wars or other foreign policy engtanglements in the second term.

    The big controversial foreign policy engagements of the Bush years were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to an extent the rhetoric used against North Korea and Iran. However, I’d really have to ask if moral theraputic deism was the main driver behind how we dealt with any of those areas. Perhaps the implicit theology of the administration controlled the tone a bit. But the most theology that I’d read into the various Bush commitments was a very general, “We should seek to support regimes we actually approve of rather than taking the old CIA ‘at least they’re our SOBs’ approach.”

  • John Henry says:

    I guess my question would be: Did the MTD vibe in some of Bush’s major speeches result from Bush being a morally therapudic deist at heart (and forming policies that were “deist” or “gnostic”) or is MTD is a sort of lowest common denominator of vaguelly religious discourse in our country, and thus something utilized by speechwriters on both sides of the aisle in order to draw on religious ideals without being hit with religious divisions.

    Well, I think Linker finds MTD attractive because he believes it is a lowest common denominator, and therefore a good candidate for the American civic religion. I don’t think Douthat and Larison are asserting Bush was a MTD, per se; heterodoxy is not necessarily the same thing as MTD, although they can overlap. They are making the more limited point that whatever Bush’s approach was, it wasn’t orthodoxy.

  • Deacon Chip says:

    Perhaps I am dense, but what I think I am reading into both the article and the comments is some sort of assumption that President Bush acted as he did on the world stage out of some misguided Gnostic plan of action, in which only he was privileged to know and understand God’s divinely appointed plan for America, and which therefore drove him to foolish choices on the world stage. If I misinterpret, my apologies, and please disregard what follows.

    I would count myself among those Christian conservatives who hitched their hopes to President Bush. However, I feel not tainted in the least by any of his choices; I believe, instead, that President Bush was and is a man of character and integrity, who found himself in a position to be The Man In Charge of our nation’s response to global terrorism. I believe (and the record would seem to support) that Pres. Bush acted as the Just War political leader is supposed to: he analyzed the threats, determined which required what response, and he responded, while keeping just war principles at heart.

    Did he make bad choices? Certainly, because he (like everyone else) was operating from a human actor with human advisors. I don’t doubt his Christian orthodoxy (prosecuting a war fits into Catholic theological constructs); and I think it almost borders on scandal to presume to know his heart, and to denigrate him based on that knowledge.

    As, I think, Doug said, History will not be *nearly* as critical of President Bush as some have been, here and elsewhere. I, for one, am content to remain hitched to his bandwagon for now.

    Peace!

  • jh says:

    I have to admit I am a tad with Darwin on this. I like DOuthat but I think his arguments against Bush and this MTD need to be developed. I mean what is Douthat arguing post 2004 that Bush did that went as to this

    I mean are the Bush Actions in Africa that were incredible a part of this and now shall be tainted.

    If I agree with such things a the Trade pact with India, the Dubai Port deal, and the Columbia Free trade accord am I in some Gnostic heresy

    What about Missile defense.

    Was immigration reform a part of this that Bush tried to do twice?

    I mean besides Iraq what else is there to pin this on Bush?

  • jh says:

    As to Damon Linker I am still baffled how he is at a magazine Like the New Republic. I mean this is a guy that swears up and down there was some plot by Neuhaus and others to make this some Catholic Theocon Country. Even likely allies panned his book

  • John Henry,

    But here’s my question: In what sense is it being argued that Bush was “heterodox” in his theology exactly?

    I mean, as a Catholic I’d say he’s “heterodox” in the way that other Evangelicals are, but frankly I think that people aren’t doing themselves a lot of favors intellectually when they read a lot of serious theological content into mainstream political speeches and then try to analyze whether that theology is orthodox.

    So for instance, those into such things criticized Bush a great deal for talking about “forces of evil” and “evil doers” and an “axis of evil” and “defeating evil”. This, it was suggested, betokened a radical Calvinistic dualism (or Gnostic dualism — or both) and committed the US under Bush’s leadership to both the illusion that people were either wholly good or wholly corrupt, and the duty of fighing everyone judged to be wholly corrupt.

    The thing is, I’m not sure there was ever much evidence outside the minds of these critics that Bush actually believed “evil doers” to be wholly and completely evil, nor did the US in fact proceed to go on some sort of all out world-wide war against “forces of evil”. Rather, it continued plodding along with what it had been doing to start with — attempting to replace two strategically located hostile regines (one theocratic, the other bascially fascist) with friendly liberal-democratic governments.

    It strikes me that much of what was going on here was intellectuals taking marketing as if it were motivation, rather than looking at what was really going on.

  • John Henry says:

    In what sense is it being argued that Bush was “heterodox” in his theology exactly?

    I think that’s a good point, and jh and Deacon Chip articulated it well also. I should have been clearer in the post. Frankly, I have no idea how one is to evaluate whether Bush himself was ‘heterodox’. First because it’s unclear what that term even means in the contemporary U.S.(is Larison using it to describe any Christian who is not Orthodox or Catholic?). Secondly, because it’s not always clear what support for a specific policy actually conveys about a politician’s theological beliefs.

    That said, I think there is abundant evidence in Bush’s speeches of the ‘messianic Americanism’ Larison describes; a sort of hubristic optimism combined with a facile equivalence of U.S. policy and the forces of good in the world. The same could be said of many U.S. politicians.

    I agree with Douthat and Larison (contra Linker) on the more modest claim that it was not slavish devotion to Catholic orthodoxy that led to Bush’s most glaring failures (e.g. Iraq was opposed by the Pope and most bishops), and that the primary lesson to be drawn from the Bush years is not that orthodoxy and politics should be kept separate going forward.

    Frankly, I do not think orthodox Catholics had much influence in the administration. Bush was happy to use Catholic language when it suited him, but there’s little reason to believe he was familiar with the broader Catholic intellectual tradition from which it arose. As someone who thought the war did not meet just war criteria, I am of the opinion that a deeper reflection on that tradition might have prevented the war. I have a similar opinion regarding the Administration’s use of torture.

    To sum up, I would say Bush’s speeches often expressed a worldview that reflected either little or only a very shallow engagement with orthodox Christianity; I would probably accept heterodox as a description of some of them, depending on how heterodox is defined. That doesn’t mean he personally was heterodox, but it does suggest orthodoxy did not play a significant role in the failures of his Administration.

  • E.D. Kain says:

    To sum up, I would say Bush’s speeches often expressed a worldview that reflected either little or only a very shallow engagement with orthodox Christianity; I would probably accept heterodox as a description of some of them, depending on how heterodox is defined. That doesn’t mean he personally was heterodox, but it does suggest orthodoxy did not play a significant role in the failures of his Administration.

    Exactly, though I think it goes much further than that; I think Bush is either not smart enough to understand the deeper aspects of his own religion, or he’s using said religion as a political tool, plain and simple. There is nothing orthodox about him or his decisions.

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