Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive When Religion Pre-empts Politics

On September 11, shocked by the sudden massacre of thousands, we instinctively reached for the only language powerful enough to speak of such violence: we agree that such acts are evil. At times like this, we need moral and religious language, because it interprets what events mean.

Yet since then, George Bush has continually repeated such language, not simply as chief mourner in a time of national disaster, but as if it were political discourse—even to argue for an unprecedented "first strike" in a nearly unilateral war. His State of the Union address startled many people by designating three nations as an "axis of evil". No doubt we can find many acts done by Saddam Hussein and (N. Korean president) that we would agree are evil. But Bush goes beyond specific acts to characterize whole nations as evil. In the process, he pictures himself as the head of an "axis of good" that he identifies with America, along with any other nations (Spain? Bulgaria? Britain?) willing to comply with his insistence on war.

My own work in the history of religion, much of it in the Middle East, raises serious concerns. We know, of course, that Christians and Muslims share a vision of the world divided between good and evil—a vision that deals in absolutes, envisioning forces of good battling against evil, God against Satan. The conflict of such primal forces allows no room for negotiation, no middle ground. Those who stand for good in the world must join in conflict that can only end in God's victory, and the annihilation of the forces of evil. This scenario, developed thousands of years ago in the apocalyptic fervor of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Judea and the Christian book of Revelation, still lends dramatic power to children's stories, from Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings.

This is powerful language, and we need it when we speak of meaning in events; but when we are talking about politics—and real people—its stark power is what makes this language problematic. Such language evokes emotion, not reflection; it bypasses the brain, and goes straight to the gut. Claiming that we are on God's side, or simply that we are right, makes it much easier to take difficult—even violent—action.

President Bush knows this, of course, and is using such language precisely because it is powerful. He told us that war with Iraq will save the world from evil. Yet being president, not Messiah, he has a humbler, more human-sized task—and a great one: to uphold the Constitution and to serve and protect our people. The founding fathers of this nation, most of them Christians who were painfully aware of the horrors enflamed by religious wars, wrote into our Constitution a clear separation of the federal government from religion—including their own.

Many Americans, including many who supported the first Gulf War, agree that the designated enemies have done much that is evil. Yet we also hear how Bush's own language—and illogic—has begun to mirror that of the enemy he intends to kill. We know, of course, that the men who planned the atrocious violence of September 11, and those who deliberately flew the planes to crash in a fiery holocaust, did so in the demented belief that they were fighting evil—in this case, ourselves&-and died invoking God's name.

Do any but his most fervent supporters believe that President Bush speaks for God? How many Christians, let alone anyone else, agree that bombing with what the Pentagon calls 'overwhelming force' is "What Jesus Would Do"?

For the sake of sanity, let us leave absolute and polarizing language to the Lord of the Rings. This is not political discourse; on the contrary, it is meant to short-circuit political discourse. What we need now, to amend the destructive course on which Bush is bent, and the suffering that has resulted, is serious negotiation—with one another, with those with whom we differ, both allies and opponents.

Elaine Pagels is Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion, PrincetonUniversity, and is a member of SBL.

Citation: Elaine Pagels, " When Religion Pre-empts Politics," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:


© 2021, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.