Summer 2004

George W. Bush & the missionary position

Author
Richard Allan Shweder

Richard A. Shweder, a cultural anthropologist, is the William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development at the University of Chicago, a Carnegie Scholar, and the author of “Why Do Men Barbecue?: Recipes for Cultural Psychology” (2003). He has been a Fellow of the American Academy since 1997. Parts of this essay are drawn from a keynote address, “The Idea of Moral Progress: Bush versus Posner versus Berlin,” presented at the 2003 meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society.

Jesus Christ is George W. Bush’s favorite political philosopher–or so he said in a Republican primary debate leading up to his nomination. And the president’s sense of mission runs deep. Speaking with evangelical zeal well over a year before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush delivered one of his earliest and most broadly appealing justifications for the project of global nation building as a moral crusade. He spoke with an uncanny prescience and with intimations of the preemptive use of American force to promote human progress.

The date was January 29, 2002. The occasion was Mr. Bush’s first State of the Union address to Congress and the nation after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Listen carefully to his augury:

America will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere. No nation owns these aspirations and no nation is exempt from them. We have no intention of imposing our culture, but America will always stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice and religious tolerance.

Those are weighty and portentous words from a leader who believes that American wealth and power should be used to uphold a universal framework for promoting social, political, and moral development on a global scale–a framework, the speech strongly implies, that is governed by a transcendent moral force.

This State of the Union message subsequently became one of the philosophical foundations for U.S. foreign policy. The president’s words seemed convincing to a majority of Americans, regardless of their location on the political spectrum. In the fifteen months leading up to the war against Iraq it became apparent that one did not have to be a born-again Christian to be inspired by his address. Mr. Bush’s perfectly pitched and high-minded imperial tone of moral progressivism and his discourse of liber- . . .

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