16 November 2014

Some Historical and Theological Commentary on Unger's The Fall of the House of Bush

This is not a book review per se, rather some selected comments regarding this work that pertain to the larger set of issues frequently discussed here. Unger weaves together a tale of the Bush family and the social forces at work that helped bring Reagan to power...with HW Bush in tow and of course later GW Bush as the saviour of the Christian Right. People have forgotten. For all the talk of Obama as being treated as 'messiah', it wasn't that different in 2000-2001. It was Unger's discussion of the Christian Right and how it interplayed with American and international politics that most interested me.

This is a worthwhile read. It took me back to days that I remember well, days in which I as a young Christian wrestled with these issues. The story of the Christian Right begins at the turn of the century but becomes particularly pertinent in the latter days of the Cold War and in the years immediately after.

As some readers will know I was an unregenerate conservative and Rush Limbaugh fan back in 1991-92. When I became a Christian in 1995 I had to reconsider everything I had been taught from Hal Lindsey Dispensationalism to Goldwater-esque Conservatism. I didn't become an instant liberal, nor am I one now, but as the Bible came to dominate my thinking I realized the Christian Right/Christian America narrative which had been pounded into me from my youth was not only wrong but heretical.

Unger lays some of the historical and cultural groundwork for the formation of the Christian Right. I still don't agree with the common narrative regarding a fifty year Christian retreat from the Scopes trial to Roe v. Wade which is echoed in Unger's work. In addition he's not a believer and thus as must be expected gets a lot of the theology wrong. He does a pretty good job but a lot of it is beyond what can be expected of someone who is not really familiar with the various factions and their respective nuances.

For example, while I can agree there was indeed a Puritan support of the notion of Jewish restoration in the homeland, an idea derived from a Postmillennial interpretation of Romans 11, this older idea of a Jewish mass conversion/revival is qualitatively different from the Dispensational understanding of revived Judaism and the re-establishment of the Old Covenant. The motivations behind the Balfour Declaration are not equivalent to that of Tim LaHaye and John Hagee.

The reasons for the Jews returning to the former Holy Land are completely different, and the fervour of Dispensationalism applied to geopolitics is quite different from the paternalist attitude of some 19th century (and earlier) sponsors of the idea of a Jewish homeland.

In addition the author seemed unable to articulate the basis of Dominionist theology and how that differed significantly from earlier forms of Fundamentalism. He rightly identifies the shift that occurred with Francis Schaeffer but is unable to tie them all together. The relationships don't always make theological sense. Many Dispensationalists are very inconsistent and have merged American Exceptionalism with their Dispensational theology.

Overall I did find it profitable to revisit these issues. It's a sobering reminder that the theology behind political Christianity can have grave consequences. In the case of the Bush administration, the influence of Dispensational theology which is virtually the default position among Evangelicals, fueled and gave justification to a war which took tens of thousands of lives and helped spark wider unrest resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. This is not a Kingdom-building method we encounter in the New Testament!

Unger also spends quite a bit of time on the Neo-conservative movement and how it differed from the mainstream/centrist Realpolitik Republicanism advocated by Nixon, Kissinger, and people like GHW Bush and Colin Powell.

I've grown a little tired of the Libertarian narrative regarding the origins of Neo-Conservatism. Some of the early thinkers had Leftist/Trotskyite roots. So what? By the time it became Neo-Conservatism they had abandoned that ideology wholesale. They are authoritarian but hardly socialist. None of their followers or the next generation had Leftist roots. So why this constant association? The critics seem to want to delegitimize it through this narrative. It's unnecessary. They morally delegitimized themselves by their actions and soundly proved their worldview was (even on a practical level) divorced from reality. They simply do not understand geopolitics or human nature. Their interpretations of history are wrong and thankfully they were stopped before they were able to do more harm to the wider world. I must qualify that statement though. It's not entirely clear that they've completely gone away. Their ideas are still being promoted in many quarters.

Part of this constant digging seems to be the perpetuation of a narrative that all things evil come from a Leftist impulse. In some cases, as with Thomas Sowell and others this has led to a basic redefinition of the Left-Right divide. They have tried to argue that all collectivist inclinations are Leftist, so any type of authoritarianism is by default a child of the Left. That's so simplistic as to be completely misleading. Authoritarianism can just as easily cloak itself in Rightist and Leftist language symbols and language. The Capitalist Monopoly can quickly become a form of collectivism. I would hardly call a company mining town a Leftist enterprise and yet to the worker and his family they are conscious of living in an authoritarian society.

Any time fallen man wields power it's bound to lead to evil, but the laissez faire/Libertarian analysis and solution is pure fiction. I would go further and insist it's rooted in myth. Power vacuums are at best temporary in the real world. The void is always filled. This is true in market economics and politics and often the two are practically speaking almost indistinguishable. If you want to discuss politics in terms of authority/government vs. localist anarchism, that's fine but this whole Sowell/Unger narrative is unhelpful and less than truthful. If Unger wasn't trying to score Libertarian points then I fail to see why I he constructed the narrative in the way he did.

I appreciated the fact that Unger allowed that not all the warmongers in the Bush administration were in fact Neo-conservatives. Militant Nationalism and advocacy of the Unitary Executive are all operating on the same playing field. Despite the nuances the men behind George W. Bush were militant nationalists and that was enough to iron out the subtle differences.

Speaking of nuance I enjoyed Unger's navigation of the differences between characters like GHW Bush, James Baker, Scowcroft and Brzezinski and people like Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and Addington.

That said, from my perspective, they're all cut from the same cloth. They're pursuing the same types of goals, just in different ways. The real nuance can be found in how they flaunt their arrogance and to what extent they believe bombing is necessary to accomplish their goals. Of course these wicked notions also tie in to the goals and aspirations of people like Falwell, Robertson, DJ Kennedy, Schaeffer, Haggard, Land and others. The Bush administration created the perfect venue that allowed these forces to come together.

Unger perpetuates the notion that GHW Bush did not push toward Baghdad in 1991 because he didn't want to upset the whole Middle East, because they knew how difficult it would be to keep order post-Saddam, and because that would go beyond the basis of the coalition etc... In other words it would have been a great diplomatic faux pas.

I agree the GHW Bush administration had a notion of how difficult it would be to secure the country and were conscious of the fact that such a move would be to Iran's benefit...something the NeoCon's didn't grasp, or didn't care about because they also planned to take out Tehran.

But I do believe there was something more in terms of strategy. The USSR was on the verge of collapse. The Gulf War more than anything was about making a statement to the world. Already the United States was launching into an expansionist mode and posture. GHW Bush's version of this was more genteel and globalist but that's what was happening in 1991 and it was continued under Clinton with the expansion of NATO etc...

The United States wanted bases in Saudi Arabia. They wanted to expand their footprint in the Middle East. Leaving Saddam Hussein in Baghdad allowed the United States to establish the illegal no-fly zones and gave a justification for their regional presence. He proved the convenient bogeyman, the geopolitical patsy. The events of 1990-91 also provided a way to break the former US relationship with Hussein. They had sponsored him during the 1980's and provided him with WMD. The truth is stranger than fiction.

Can we prove this motive behind US geo-strategy? No this is a circumstantial argument but not unprecedented. It's sort of like Truman using the atomic bomb. I know the arguments about the invasion of Japan and the saving of massive casualties, but I think more than anything Truman wanted to declare the beginning of a new order. Hiroshima was as much about Stalin as it was Hirohito. Remember he got the news of the successful Trinity test while at Potsdam and he was quick to inform Stalin... who as we later found out already knew.

The theology and conduct of the Christian Right is of course appalling and it comes out in this book. I don't think too many people are aware of the close relationship between the Christian Right and Likud's Netanyahu, nor are they aware of how many in Israel believe Netanyahu bears some responsibility in fomenting the atmosphere that led to the assassination of Rabin.

In terms of the spiritual war, the men in this narrative are all the agents of Antichrist and the False Zion. I think many people have already forgotten much that occurred during these years and this book gives a good and relatively simple summary.

Unger concludes with the idea that the Bush dynasty which began a couple of generations before the presidency of Bush 41 was after George W. Bush (43) all but finished. But Unger has miscalculated. Memory has all but been obliterated in our modern culture. It only takes a few years and the comeback can begin and we may already be seeing the Bush family on the mend. We'll see what happens in 2016.