His God Is Marching On

Scott P. RichertIf you relied on wire service accounts, Catholic commentary, and the few snippets of video on the evening news, you can be forgiven for believing that the White House Welcoming Ceremony held for Pope Benedict XVI on April 16 was entirely “warm,” “friendly,” and marked by “mutual admiration and respect.”

But beneath the surface, the waters weren’t so calm, as anyone who watched the entire ceremony, listened closely to President Bush’s speech, and paid attention to the symbolism knows.

True, the President praised the Holy Father’s commitment to life, his embrace of “a culture of justice and truth,” and his proper understanding of liberty as entailing responsibilities as well as freedoms.

The shadow of the Iraq war hung over the festivities, however. President Bush had sought the approval of Pope John Paul II in the run-up to the war in 2002 and 2003, and he had been disappointed when Benedict’s predecessor spoke out strongly against the war. Cardinal Ratzinger himself had made it clear after the war had started that “reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist,” and that a preemptive war could never be a just war.

Five years after the start of the war, President Bush might simply have refrained from any reference to it, but, for whatever reason, he could not bring himself to do so. Ironically, he began his remarks with a reference to Saint Augustine, usually regarded as the first expositor of Christian just-war theory. He quickly moved on, though, to describe America as “a nation of compassion,” and his description of what such compassion entails included a veiled reference to the war:

Each day across the world the United States is working to eradicate disease, alleviate poverty, promote peace and bring the light of hope to places still mired in the darkness of tyranny and despair.

The fact that Saddam Hussein’s “tyranny” was used to justify “regime change” by force of arms leaves little doubt about what President Bush was referring to, and the smile that Pope Benedict had been sporting disappeared from his face.

Interestingly, the Holy Father’s remarks, prepared in advance, read at points as if they were a direct response to President Bush. Stressing the link between freedom and the moral order, which “calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate,” Pope Benedict invoked George Washington’s Farewell Address:

Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.

Those decisions include not only domestic but foreign policy:

For well over a century, the United States of America has played an important role in the international community. . . . I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress.

President Bush, however, would have the final word, as the U.S. Army Chorus chimed in in support of his vision that compassion can be spread at the point of a sword. The decision to perform “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for a religious leader known as a man of peace, one who has stated that he chose the name “Benedict” in part in emulation of Benedict XV, who campaigned unstintingly for peace during World War I, was odd enough. Set aside Julia Ward Howe’s Unitarianism, which leads to serious theological errors in the verses; set aside even the role that the Battle Hymn played in stoking the fires of fratricide. Focus, instead, on the symbolism at an event in which the President of the United States has justified an unjust war in the name of “compassion.”

And then watch the video of the performance. Observe the arrangement of the song: When the Army Chorus reaches the third verse (“In the beauty of the lilies”), the tempo is slowed, the dynamics soften—all fairly traditional, though exaggerated on this occasion. To what purpose? To heighten the effect when, after the words “As He died to make men holy,” the Army Chorus abruptly picks up the pace and drives home, in staccato beats, each word rising to a higher pitch, the final lines of that verse: “LET. US. DIE. TO. MAKE. MEN. FREE.”

“While God is marching on,” indeed. But the look of bewilderment that had settled on the Holy Father’s face at the beginning of the Battle Hymn changes so abruptly at that moment to a look of pain that one wonders whether he was asking himself just who that god might be. And the fact that Pope Benedict rises as quickly as he can—even before President Bush does—to leave the stage and head into the White House speaks volumes.

On occasion, here and elsewhere, I have described President Bush as a nationalist, and I’m almost always taken to task immediately by those who argue that nationalism simply means the defense of the nation-state. President Bush cannot be a nationalist, they argue, because he has no qualms about the destruction of the American, the shipping of U.S. jobs overseas, the tearing down of what remains of our borders, the demographic transformation of the United States.

While it’s true that many people who are concerned about these issues identify themselves as nationalists, historically nationalism has signified something else: an abstract commitment to a nation that isn’t necessarily concerned with the well-being of a particular people in a particular place (traditionally denoted as patriotism). For a century, American nationalists such as President Bush have been committed to an idea of America that has little or nothing to do with the actual lives of actual Americans (much less the land on which they live), and everything to do with America as a “proposition” or “credal nation,” which can accept all people as part of itself, while spreading what is “essential” to the nation (the proposition or creed) to populations abroad.

In President Bush’s case, even more strongly than in the case of, say, Woodrow Wilson, this abstract nationalism has been bound up with the conviction that he, like President Lincoln, can discern God’s Will. His continued commitment to the war in Iraq is not mere stubbornness; it reflects his sense that “a nation of compassion” does the work of God by “bring[ing] the light of hope to places still mired in the darkness of tyranny and despair.” As he sends men to “die to make men free,” his god is marching on.

Pope Benedict, who came of age under the rule of a man with a similar conviction of his (to borrow a phrase from Mel Bradford) “prophetic, teleological task,” undoubtedly sees parallels between Hitler’s national god and Bush’s.

What he does not see is the Prince of Peace—the true God Who did not die merely to “make men holy” but died and rose again to offer men the true freedom that comes from taking up their cross and following Him.

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