The National Catholic Review
Jim Sawyer

The inordinate power of the United States under George W. Bush, according to Jim Garrison, president of State of the World, which is based in San Francisco, disturbs people on the American left but excites people on the American right. Conservatives view the fall of the Soviet empire as Ronald Reagan’s singular accomplishment, rather than the culmination of leadership by a succession of late 20th-century presidents. Bill Clinton’s foreign policy is portrayed as a squandered opportunity, a failure to project American power forcefully and opportunely into the global void created by Soviet collapse. Consequently, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also created for conservatives a manifest destiny not only to reclaim the Reagan mantle of power, but also to force its extension through the doctrine of preemption.

Garrison challenges the political right’s foreign policy agenda as he articulates an alternative global vision that transcends nationalistic self-interest. The great paradox of our time is that stewardship rather than force is becoming the most powerful tool for preserving the long-term security of U.S. interests at home and abroad. Bush’s foreign policythe us against them paradigmis a reassertion of the nationalistic tradition, of which a striking example was Andrew Jackson’s war against Native Americans.

A principal Bush audienceanalogous to the farmers and frontiersmen who supported Andrew Jackson in the 1830’sis the Christian right. Ironically, fundamentalist Christians hold a political vision that is essentially the same, in Garrison’s view, as Islamic and Jewish visions. For fundamentalist Muslims, Christians and Jews, the world is divided into believers and nonbelievers. Each of the three perceives that God is on their side. Each holds an apocalyptic belief that God will end a world ripened in sin while saving his electthe righteous and true believers. Of course, only one group can win in this high-stakes, zero-sum war of attrition.

In the fundamentalist Christian version, the return of the Jews to Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel are key indicators that the end is near. This is a drama of finality, observes Garrison, in which day-to-day life becomes increasingly turbulent and destructive. Jesus returns in the midst of this turmoil and in the great rapture gathers up all true Christians and takes them to heaven. (Didn’t Christ die for the redemption of all humankind?)

Garrison believes that Christian fundamentalism, operating through American political culture, projects a radical pessimism about human nature and current events. Indeed, it is radical in a manner similar to Islamic fundamentalism. Quite literally, he says, the worse the world situation becomes, the more expectant true believers (as the self-declared elect of God) become, because they believe they are getting closer to the ultimate day of reckoning. This fosters a culture in which the believers exercise little regard for the environment because they believe it will be destroyed anyway. They are largely disinterested in the protection of civil liberties, because they believe strong action must be taken against potential terrorists and other infidels. And they have little sympathy for the poor, who, they believe, are merely caught up in the dislocation that signals the end is at hand.

Christian fundamentalism is a powerful player in America’s drift from global leader to imperial bully. Nations that do not become part of Bush’s coalition of the willing face being labeled rogue states, even enemies of freedom itself. One of the deepest truths of history, however, as Garrison points out, is that people in despair will act out of their powerlessness in ways that confound the powerful. Bush’s strategy and style, particularly regarding Iraq, may do more to contribute to terrorism than to contain it. Certainly terrorism thrives on injustice and inequity, including the enormous disparities between wealthy and poor wrought by the unrestrained market forces that conservatives applaud.

Fundamentalism also obscures stewardship, a biblical concept in which the earth is the Lord’s and humans are appointed as gardeners to prune and care for it. Conversely, conservatives place inordinate weight upon the largely unregulated institution of global corporate capitalism. Markets, of course, have no values other than to buy and sell, unless circumscribed by moral restraint, which market fundamentalists are loath to impose. Consequently, large domestic and global issues are ignored in the belief that public action will only create future problems of even greater magnitude, an attitude the economist Joan Robinson decries as laissez-faire resurgence. Among extremists there is the belief that the status quo represents God’s irrevocable plan, that attempts to modify it are futile and that the only available option is to wait fatalistically for the inevitable outcome. Planning is portrayed as unnecessary and wasteful, even contrary to God’s will; thus the prediction of systemic collapse becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Garrison reminds readers of his thesis that in addition to the problem of failed and failing states, such as Afghanistan, there are a host of colossal problems with global reach that call us to immediate counsel with the community of nationsa multilateral strategy anathema to the Bush White House. These problems range from global warming and loss of biodiversity to persistent poverty and water scarcity. Strangely, the totality of danger is not yet apparent to Americans anesthetized by cheap gas, cheap Wal-Mart merchandise from China and cheap, high caloric food from McDonald’s.

Ironically, one wonders if this myopic, market-oriented and apocalyptic focus is the very institutional Anti-Christ decried by Christian fundamentalists. Unfortunately, the cohort of their children and grandchildren will be the ones who must clean up the sorry mess they are leaving behind, amid chaos and with vastly diminished resources.

Jim Sawyer, a political economist, holds the Louis B. Gaffney Chair of Arts and Sciences at Seattle University, Wash.