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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Biblical Sources of the Crusade Against EvilRobert Jewett


In recent times, President George W. Bush has expressed what we call American messianism. It is a form of American civil religion that fuses biblical texts with the imagery of superheroic battles against supervillains. We see suggestive links between the biblical texts—in particular Daniel and Revelation—and the increasingly religious language of President George W. Bush.

An example of this is President Bush's announcement of a world-scale purgation of evil, announcing that "our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." He has frequently framed the conflict with Osama bin Laden in religious terms: "We're fighting evil" or "the evil ones" in a "crusade against terrorism." He identified an "axis of evil" and aims to purge from the world any states who grant terrorists "the means to match their hatred."

This rhetoric is typical of American civil religion, whose origins reach back to colonial times when the influence of the Bible played a decisive role. Today, with the exception of Fundamentalists who replicate many features of the early Puritan colonists, these ideas are conveyed through popular narratives in which superheroes vanquish foes to make the world safe for democracy.


Throughout American history a peculiar sense of mission called the nation to redeem the entire world. The typicality of Bush's rhetoric can be measured against examples like Albert J. Beveridge, who at the beginning of the twentieth century addressed the Senate with these words:"Almighty God. . . has marked the American people as the chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America. . . . We are the trustees of the world's progress, guardians of the righteous peace."

The idea that the chosen nation's wars could provide such regeneration goes back to biblical precedents. The earliest phases of Israelite religion point in this direction. Moses proclaimed that Yahweh, the God of battle, would set his people free and give them the promised land (Ex. 14-15). In a later period, the effort to reestablish a zealous fervor came to a climax when Joel tauntingly reversed Isaiah's words in a call to a renewal of zealous warfare: "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, 'I am a warrior'" (NRSV Joel 3:10).

The conviction that violence could "rid the world of evil," in Bush's terms, may derive from The Book of Revelation, which played a decisive role in the revolutionary ideology of the early Puritans. For much of the course of the American experience, it was the Book of Revelation that placed its stamp upon the whole Bible. Over and over again it promises total victory to the saints. It urges them to keep pure and undefiled while God annihilates their opponents, who are stereotyped as bestial and irredeemable. This will produce a peaceable kingdom in which evil is permanently banned, for the safety of the saints.

What we call the Captain America complex that emerged from this biblical matrix has several interlocking features that surface in the rhetoric and politics of George W. Bush.


The prototype of zeal for the biblical tradition was Phinehas (Num. 25). The striking thing is that a short circuit occurs by which Phinehas' zeal is flatly identified with Yahweh's. This so absolutizes human zeal that it justifies the elimination of due process of law and breaks across any restraint of social custom. Phinehas "turned back" Yahweh's wrath against Israel, redeeming her from the plague.

There are several paradigms for zeal that the Bible has provided for American culture. What we call hot zeal is direct and bloody. In contrast, cool zeal is passive. It prefers to let others dispatch the victim and is concerned that the saint not be defiled in the regrettable course of battle. While Phinehas and Elisha were prototypes of hot zeal, the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation provide inspiration for the cool variety. In Daniel the saints never actually put the villains to death. Daniel is preserved while his enemies are thrown into the den along with their children (Dan 6). The moral attractiveness in this ancient form of massacre was that Daniel himself played no direct part. His God saw to it that the lions did the job. The same pattern appears in Revelation. There, too, the saints keep their robes white by allowing divine agencies to destroy the wicked.

American political rhetoric seems to prefer cool zeal, as in the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Here the Lord is seen executing judgment through the Northern marching legions. But in order to fit into Revelation's fastidious tradition, the hymn sidesteps the fact that Union soldiers actually kill their enemies. If death comes to the Union soldier, he is "transfigured" by his Christ-like unselfishness; if death comes to the Confederate soldier, he has been cut down by the "terrible, swift sword" of God. Thus a traditional battle-song theme—the joy of killing the enemy—is completely sublimated in cool zeal. It is as if the Lord alone pulls the triggers while the soldiers serve as faithful and guiltless channels of remote controlled wrath.

The concept of cool zeal explains the striking recurrence of appeals to pure motivation in American war pronouncements. The Spanish American War was "not a war of conquest . . . of envy or enmity . . . of pillage or gain," wrote historian Henry Watterson in 1898. President Wilson insisted in his declaration of war message of 1918 that "we have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion." President Nixon's goal in the Vietnam War, as he told Allen Drury, was "first to get this war ended in a way that Americans can look back upon not ashamed, not frustrated, not angry, but with a pride that in spite of our difficulties we have been totally unselfish." President Bush is not alone in his statements of good intentions during wartime; it is a Presidential pathology that we link to the biblical ethos of cool zeal.


While there are many biblical writings that advocate respect for foreigners and dissidents, there is a strand of the Bible that inspires severe forms of stereotyping. The Book of Deuteronomy developed the earlier prophetic critique of Canaanite religion into a rationale for national decline. National reverses were supposedly due to God's wrath at the widespread acceptance of foreign religion and culture by Israel. The solution that Deuteronomy proposed was to wipe out the corruption by centralizing cultic activity in Jerusalem while eliminating foreigners. The command was to destroy the "Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and the Jebusites . . . . The Lord your God will give you victory over them. Your part is to exterminate them, never parleying with them, never pitying them" (Deut. 7:1f.).

This destruction inspired by stereotypes culminated in the books of Daniel and Revelation. Here the saints are entirely pure and their antagonists entirely corrupt and beastly. For example in Dan 7:2-7, there is a vision of the great empires as grotesque beasts that exercise terrible dominion. Such enemies evoke no sympathy; they destroy for the sheer pleasure of destruction. In view of their bestial nature and evil deeds, there is no hope of their conversion. Daniel is spared by God, not because he possesses equivalent military force, but because he "was found blameless" in God's eyes (Dan. 6:22).

The word "saint" also occurs frequently in Revelation as a technical term to depict radical separateness from corruption. The saints are those who refuse to worship the corrupt "beast" of Rome (Rev. 20:4 ), who "have not defiled themselves with women" (Rev. 14:4 ), and who "keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus" (Rev. 14:12). They are those in whose mouths "no lie was found, for they are blameless" (Rev. 14:5). Matching the purity of their behavior is the white robe of the saints in Revelation, and the author explicitly links this to their righteousness: "Now the fine linen signifies the righteous deeds of God's people" (Rev. 19:8). The author connects this purity to a passive endurance of persecution rather than with active resistance, again highlighting the concern not to smear the saints with the blood of their corrupt victims. Yet before God's throne they cry out for vengeance against their persecutors (Rev. 6:10). Obviously, saintly purity in Revelation is compatible with a desire for vengeance.

We see the impact of such stereotyping in the references by President Bush to "the evil ones" who "recognize no barrier of morality. They have no conscience. The terrorists cannot be reasoned with." In other words, as they are incorrigible, they can only be rooted out and destroyed.


That violence can be perceived as redemptive is affirmed in one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry, the Song of Miriam, which celebrates the triumph over the Egyptians at the time of the exodus (Ex. 15:21). That what we call 'cool zeal' in the Bible is mapped onto ethical rationales for government-sponsored violence is suggested in the superheroic language of "good vs. evil." This zealous nationalism is supported by a sense of our national purity and righteousness, a direct descendent of the thinking in Daniel and Revelation.

It is clear that these rationales for violence has had a decisive impact on our civil religion and our history. For example, Captain John Underhill defended the Pequod Massacre in 1637 by referring to the biblical precedents:

Sometimes the Scriptures declareth women and children must perish with their parents. Sometimes the case alters; but we will not dispute it now. We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.

We are concerned that a contemporary form of this "sufficient light," conveyed through civil religion and superheroic hubris, is guiding not just the President but a majority of Americans onto a dangerous path that may prove destructive to democracy itself.

Robert Jewett is a Guest Professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg and John Shelton Lawrence is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy who now resides in Berkeley, CA. Their books, The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (2003) were both published by Eerdmans.

Citation: John Shelton Lawrence , Robert Jewett, " The Biblical Sources of the Crusade Against Evil," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:


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