As 'evil axis' turns, Bush sees no blur of right, wrong

As a born-again Christian, George W. Bush is the most overtly religious president since Jimmy Carter. For him, that includes a very clear, very sturdy, almost joyful certainty about what's right and what's wrong.

National leaders - most notably Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II - have always painted a black-and-white picture of the values, cultures, and civilizations pitted against one another in times of mass conflict involving great effort and great loss. The war against terrorism has followed this pattern, with Bush's constant references to "evil," "evil doers," "the evil ones," and "axis of evil."

There were five such references in his State of the Union address last week. More followed, including speeches outside of Washington and letters to grade-school pupils.

"I don't see any shades of gray in the war against terror," he said in Atlanta.

For many people, the president's steely-eyed view of the nation's "enemies" - four references in the State of the Union speech - is also a wel- come relief from the moral relativism of the "if it feels good, do it" outlook (as Bush puts it) that seems to have pervaded popular culture and tarred many politicians from Democrat Bill Clinton to Republican Henry Hyde.

This sense of moral certainty also parallels the great popularity of things like the current hit film "The Fellowship of the Ring" in which the evil Dark Lord Sauron must be stood up to by the good Hobbits.

Some find such presidential language unsettling.

"The implication of this language is a sort of insight and ultimate judgment that most Christians are a little uncomfortable with," says James Dunn, a professor of Christianity and public policy at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "When that sort of ultimate certainty comes along, you have the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Puritan hangings."

But if public opinion polls are any gauge, Americans are responding very positively to this rhetoric.

TWO-THIRDS of Americans say the US is winning the war, and only 6 percent say it was a mistake to get involved in sending the military to Afghanistan - the lowest "mistake" for a war in the past 50 years, says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Polls.

Humans have always pondered the nature of evil. At its most fundamental, it leads many to a theological conundrum: "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

But for Bush, there seems to be no such existential angst. For him, "evil is real," and "the evil ones" must be fought."

Political rhetoric has always been very important ("fetuses" vs. "unborn babies," "illegal aliens" vs. "undocumented workers," etc.). In this case - tied as it is to attacks on Americans, and now a war in which American lives have been lost - such rhetoric may be even more profound. But in a way, saying "evil is real," as Bush does, also can be seen as a way of avoiding the "why do they hate us?" question. It allows one to fault "evildoers" while US policies, hubris, and culture have nothing to do with what motivates terrorists. It makes it easier to just say, "they hate freedom and our way of life."

"The great divide is economic, educational, medical - all those things that separate the haves from the have nots," says Dr. Dunn, who is also concerned about the implications for separation of church and state in the president's language.

This has led to a debate that is intellectual as well as theological and political.

"We have not seen the face of evil; we have seen the face of an enemy who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals, and strategies," says Stanley Fish, professor of English and criminal justice at the University of Illinois.

"If we reduce that enemy to 'evil,' we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counterstrategies," he wrote in The New York Times last October, responding to charges that "the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country's resolve."

Still, Bush's rhetoric here has some surprising supporters. "Among other virtues, what Mr. Bush said about the three countries has the advantage of being true," editorialized The Washington Post in reference to Bush's lumping together of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as a new "axis of evil."

But for most Americans, it's not what foreign policy experts think, but the obviously heightened need for a defense against attack on the homeland that is important. And here, his choice of rhetoric, whether calculated or intuitive, is an important element in his extraordinary level of public support.

"Mr. Bush's eloquence is in his plainspokenness...." Peggy Noonan, a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, wrote about the State of the Union address. "Its main point was to tell the American people we are in the fight of our lives and that we had better win, and will."

Bush's persistent warnings about "evil" and the need to fight it thus echo Edmund Burke, the British statesman and parliamentary orator: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Doing nothing is not a US option, and for Bush this means not only record-setting military spending but also appealing to "a land of people who are so compassionate and so decent and so kind, that evil people can't possibly put that into their calculation." He thus posits American "goodness" against "an enemy that knows no value, does not share the same values we do."

"I'm asking people to fight evil with good," he says. "Stand up to evil with acts of goodness and kindness."

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