Polls tell us that, in the face of rather robust economic growth, Americans are worried. Something, they feel, is not right with the country. Some 70 percent believe that the country is on the wrong course. Few have confidence that either the president or the Republican-controlled Congress is providing adequate leadership.
President Bush’s approval rating is at 29 percent in one recent poll and confidence in the Congress is at 23 percent Some 68 percent are convinced that the country is worse off under President Bush than it was before he took office.
There is a major disconnect between those who rule and those who are ruled. If the president and his party do not resonate with the people’s values and concerns, from whom do they get their sense of right and wrong? From themselves alone it would appear.
We have declined into a politics of rule by optimates, to borrow a phrase from the dying decades of the Roman Republic. To hold power in the face of popular alienation, the Republican Party elite relies on gerrymandered congressional districts for control of the House of Representatives and on massive fundraising to smear its Democratic opponents as soft on terrorism, abortion, gay rights, and other sins of “liberalism”.
The Bush/Rove/Cheney team unites the oligarchic arrogance of big-time insiders with plutocratic disdain for those who merely work for a living. Here in Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman provides one more voice for that factional approach to democracy.
But the moral driver guiding this ruling cohort is not, at bottom, the pursuit of more wealth. Rather it is religious conviction as a justification for the arbitrary use of power. For example, the global war on terror and the war in Iraq are being fought out of principle and have cost the United States great sums of money and much good will.
The president, at least, seems to be consumed with the righteousness of one lifted out from life’s ordinary drudgery into a semi-divine state of grace. It is a connection with God’s truth that gives this man his tin ear for human concerns and his moral myopia where his friends and supporters are concerned. To the just, many favorable things are permitted, it would seem.
Bush’s political base, crudely manipulated by Karl Rove with wedge issues of deep meaning to zealots, rests largely on the hard-edged, intolerant beliefs of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant refusants. These Americans are very often in denial about the complexity that comes with modernity and therefore refuse to ascent to majoritarian ways. Theirs is a religion of millenarian certainty. As a bumper sticker puts it: “God said it. I believe it. And that ends it.”
And yet, this militantly Christian fringe is not as Christian as it likes to believe, but., in reality, a fringe movement imposing something of a heresy on Christian teachings. Contemporary millenarian Christians have been seduced by the ancient Zoroastrian heresy that promises communion with God for those few who have special insight into truth.
Briefly, Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Persian Empire. The created world was seen by Zoroastrians as filled with corrupting materialism and dominated by evil powers – Satan, in fact. But a high power of light living above the world would bring salvation to those who rejected evil and believed in him. He would send his spiritual agent into the world to rescue those who, according to their righteous conduct, deserved to be saved.
This is little different from the current extreme Protestant fascination with End Times and the Rapture. It is in fact the dogma of a wide spectrum of the religious right arising from their undue focus on the Book of Revelation, the Book of Daniel, and certain sayings of Jesus Christ in the canonical gospels to the exclusion of other Christian teachings.
Zoroastrianism came into the Judeo-Christian tradition through politics and war. The Jews of ancient Israel were conquered by Persia and then suffered exile in Persian surroundings. The Old Testament Books of Daniel and Esther describe Jews in Persian and Zoroastrian settings. Zoroastrian thinking came into Judeo-Christian thought from that experience.
After the death of Jesus, Zoroastrian beliefs showed up in what are called the Gnostic Gospels found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt and more recently in the newly released Gospel of Judas. But these Gnostic Gospels were rejected by the founders of the Christian Church as heretical and inconsistent with true Christian teachings. The current re-emergence of such messianic views among adherents of the religious right should also be viewed as a similar heresy. If Zoroastrian thinking – fear of the Devil or Satanic influences, a militant, crusading zeal to destroy enemies, rejection of sexuality with fixations on abortion and homosexuality, or a literalism in salvation hopes – emerges in a friend or neighbor, we should not jump to the conclusion that he or she is indeed holy and more likely to be loved by God than we are.
Zoroastrian visions of a great struggle between good and evil appeal to those who fear life – for whatever reason. Such fears arise most naturally during periods of cultural stress and uncertainty over core human values. Those who have trouble coping with uncertainty turn to religious perspectives that offer hope and reassurance of supernatural intervention for the good. Our president seems to be such a person in need of transcendent certainty that his life has redemptive purpose. Many of those who support him have a similar need as well.
One irony of our time is that the neo-Zoroastrian thinking of George W. Bush now confronts the neo-Zoroastrian thinking of the Iranian Shi’ites as each seeks to win the battle of Armageddon for his faith. Shi’ite beliefs descend from the merger of Islam with Zoroastrianism just as Bush’s fundamentalism depends on the Zoroastrian side of Christianity. So it is no coincidence that Iranian President Ahmadi-Najad’s recent letter to President Bush staked out the Shi’ite claim to be closer to God’s truth than is Bush’s Christianity.
We are in a religious war all right and need to find a theological way to peace so that all the heresies will defer to a higher truth of justice and happiness.