America is a rhetorical republic. Our people are united not by ethnicity, institutions, territory, nor even, as is becoming evident, language, but rather by narrative – specifically, epic narrative; more specifically, Biblical epic; and more specifically still, America identifies itself nationally in terms of the grand Biblical epic of Exodus. To be sure, others have appealed to Exodus – the Voortrekkers of 19th century South Africa and the civil rights marchers of 20th century America are two neatly opposed instances – but no other great nation has modeled itself on the migration led by Moses from Egyptian servitude across the desert to the Promised Land.
If Exodus tells us who we are in general terms, the Jeremiad reminds us of certain particulars. It seeks to make us aware, and even establish as the central theme of the story, that the journey is dangerous, and that we will prevail under such harsh conditions only through absolute unity and individual self-sacrifice. It reassures us that our ideals are high – that God is on our side – but also warns that any loss of faith in them – any doubt that reliance on God alone is enough to ensure our delivery to Canaan – will be severely punished. Indeed, the journey to freedom is a test of our basic beliefs, and we will be singled out for extraordinary punishment if we waver from them. Special care must therefore be taken to identify, castigate, and ostracize backsliders and others who are less than unreservedly enthusiastic about the mission.
President George W. Bush and his administration have followed this narrative closely. September 11th threatened a new form of Egyptian servitude, and a trek into the desert (Afghanistan, then Iraq) was duly instigated to protect our freedom. Indeed, Bush turned out to mimic Moses in a great many details. Like Moses, Bush is prickly, defensive, and a poor speaker. Though Moses had only one brother, Aaron, to correct his garbled speech, Bush relies on a whole band of brothers – and a sister, if one adds Condoleezza Rice to Donald H. Rumsfeld, Richard V. Cheney, and Colin Powell. Moses gave his people the Ten Commandments, and Bush saw to it that the Patriot Act was brought down to Americans from the Hill, if not the Mountain. In tune with the Jeremiad, he regularly warns of the hazards that threaten and the monsters that lurk, and even supplemented his sermons with the more user-friendly color-coded Threat Level System of Homeland Security, which gets turned up or down in accordance with the administration’s desire for unity and discipline (as I write, the level is yellow, for “elevated,” like one’s blood pressure). He loves nothing more than to mean-spiritedly hector those with the temerity to express skepticism about the wisdom of his adventure.
But in Bush’s case, there is more to all this than mere analogy. Scholars such as Sacvan Bercovitch and Perry Miller have pointed out the way in which the Puritan Jeremiad was transformed and secularized as a central public mode of political address in America. Faith in God became fidelity to America's founding principles, and criticism took the form of attributing the nation's ills to a failure to live up to our political ideals coupled with a call to renew our commitment to them. With Bush, however, secularization doesn’t enter in. Literally like Moses, not just metaphorically, Bush hears God instructing him on policy and leadership, to the apparent awe and delight of his constituents. Bush literally believes that he has been called by God to lead his people through the wilderness to the land of milk and honey, though in this version Bush marches the faithful back to the Holy Lands for the migration to end all migrations, the “end-time” of Armageddon.
The Jeremiad provides one explanation for Bush’s inability to express disappointment with the way things are turning out in Iraq. According to the Exodus-Jeremiad logic, the worse one’s suffering in the desert, the more certain one can be of God’s interest in one’s project. The hardships are provided by God expressly to test the missionaries’ faith in Him. An easy victory, in fact, would have been a disturbing indication that God was not really interested in Bush’s war. From the point of view of Bush’s fundamentalism, his horrendous record of defeat in Iraq not only offers welcome opportunities to demonstrate his and his people’s faith in their God in the face of powerful evidence that He has in fact abandoned them, but also provides confirmation that what Bush takes to be God’s voice is indeed His.
The policy implication is that nothing is going to convince Bush to change course. In his heart of hearts, he truly believes: the worse, the better.