A Puritan on the warpath

by Tristram Hunt
guardian unlimited

The Biblical zeal with which the US President is waging a moral crusade against Saddam Hussein owes much to the dissenting protestantism of America's original settlers

As America's war drums beat ever louder, the Bush administration has embarked upon an unprecedented exercise in diplomatic softening-up. Under the fashionable rubric of 'public diplomacy', the White House is aiming to legitimise war in Iraq by explaining to a global audience the selfless idealism of the American way. While Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld appeal to the 'kick-ass' militarism of the US mainstream, new more subtle pro-American radio stations and cable channels proliferate throughout the Middle East. In Washington, the urgent need to challenge hostile media perceptions has seen the public diplomacy spin unit moved from the State Department to the White House West Wing.

Yet none of this will make the slightest difference. As this week's coverage has shown, America will continue to be resented as brash, imperialistic and arrogant. There can be no global improvement in the United States 'brand' so long as George W. Bush remains President. For with a resonance apparent in few other republics, the bearer of the US presidency defines the American image. With Reagan it was the frontier spirit, with Bush senior East Coast Waspishness. The current President Bush regards himself as America's Churchill, but he is in fact heir to a far less attractive aspect of the Anglo-American heritage - Puritanism.

From the landing of the Mayflower, those Pilgrims who fled the tyranny and irreligion of Stuart England believed they were establishing a new moral order. America was to be the Promised Land, the New World free from the decayed corruption of courtly Europe. Its virgin wilderness offered a modern Garden of Eden. And the model piety of the Puritan settlers would act as a beacon for the fallen old world to follow. America was unique and its people blessed.

Across the centuries the Puritan spirit, which helped foster an incredible economic dynamism, a self-righteous moral certainty and, in seventeenth century Salem (as later in the hands of Joseph McCarthy), a frightening propensity to crush free-thinking, has remained quietly resilient in American political discourse. Now in the character of George Bush, and most spectacularly in the form of Attorney General John Ashcroft, it has come to dominate America's public image.

Bush's presidency was built on Puritan legend. He placed the story of his own personal redemption at the heart of his political narrative. As Clinton was the boy from a broken home who battled against an alcoholic step-father, Bush was the man who at the age of 40 saw the light. His youthful alcoholism, his rumoured drug abuse, and his numerous arrests were forgotten as he swapped the bottle for Bible study with librarian wife Laura. Dubya had lived and loved in darkness but he saw the error of his ways, embraced the Lord and the slate was wiped clean. A true Pilgrim's Progress.

Brilliantly, the Bush campaign projected the morality of this Puritan journey on to the American body politic. After the decadent excesses of the Clinton years, it was, as Bush repeated over and again, 'time to scrub the Oval Office clean'. America had to purify the Presidency if it was to reclaim its status as the Promised Land.

Once in power, the Puritan culture flourished. John Ashcroft undermined centuries of church-state separation by demanding his office staff join him in Bible readings. Inside the White House, Bush insisted on smart dress and smart manners and in contrast to Clinton's late-night policy rambles he rose early each day for a two-hour work-out. According to accounts published in the New York Times, a glamorous evening with President Bush consists of 'dinner at seven, coffee on the Truman Balcony and bed by 10'. Where Clinton revelled in the metropolitan intellectualism of Martha's Vineyard, Bush has made the bleak philistinism of Crawford, Texas, his spiritual home.

Such puritan mores were of amusing if parochial interest until the events of 11 September. In the administration's ensuing reprisals on the Taliban and broadening 'war on terror' against al-Qaeda, Bush claimed to have realised the divine calling of his presidency. He was involved not in a legitimate defence of the national interest but a Manichean struggle between good and evil, black and white, fear and freedom. In language strikingly redolent of his Puritan forebears, Bush accepted it was his destiny to fight 'this crusade, this war on terrorism'. The President declared himself and the nation engaged in a life and death struggle with 'the evil one', Osama bin Laden. A man who was not simply a terrorist with messianic delusions, but 'an incredibly evil man'.

As crusades have a habit of doing, the war on terror has widened its remit. Bush is now committed to conquering an entire 'axis of evil' as sinful, backward and fallen as Puritans once regarded the old world. And according to Defence Secretary Rumsfeld, the White House is ready to do this with or without old world, European support. America has rediscovered its unique, special calling - to drain the swamp of terrorism and 'let in the light' of Western democracy and free market economics. The Puritan heritage of unilateral moral righteousness has resurfaced as never before.

This hubristic moral certainty now defines the global image of the United States. Across the world, post-11 September sympathy is evaporating as Bush embarks on a unilateral war on terror which interprets geopolitics as a seismic struggle between good and evil. A struggle which would in the Pentagon world view have regarded the armed resistance of the African National Congress (ANC) as evil just as it now believes Ariel Sharon to be 'a man of peace'.

But behind the Puritan righteousness, there is as ever the whiff of hypocrisy. As recent reports have indicated, if in the early days of the administration Bush hadn't been so concerned with rubbishing the Clinton legacy rather than following up intelligence reports, or John Ashcroft hadn't prioritised combating pornography above fighting global terrorism, Osama bin Laden and the al- Qaeda network might have been dealt a lethal blow.

Yet just as debilitating for America's long-term global interests is the damage Bush is doing to the predominantly progressive legacy of American political history. Among the anti-globalisation European young and across much of the Arab world, the radicalism and inspiration of the American story is being pushed out by impressions of big business, unchecked militarism and imperial hegemony.

It isn't just a question of forgetting America's extraordinary force for good throughout most of the twentieth century. Rather, Bush is endangering a greater legacy: the revolutionary idealism of George Washington and the enfranchising liberalism of the founding fathers, who sent the language of autonomy and self-respect around the world. A political language that secured human rights and peacefully undercut authoritarian regimes across the centuries. Equally at risk is the introspective spiritualism of the American tradition. In an administration over-shadowed by oil and B52s, the individualism of Henry D. Thoreau as well as the humanitarian dignity of his intellectual heir, Martin Luther King, is forgotten. America's legacy of civil society, of environmental activism, women's rights and identity politics will count for nought with a President who snubs the Earth summit while unilaterally planning war on Iraq.

America's progressive heritage, its surest route to a positive global reception, is being jettisoned by the regressive Puritanism of the Bush White House. Yet the President blunders on incredulous at any expression of disquiet. The worst move he could now make is to relocate those charged with 'selling America' from the State Department to the West Wing. For it is Secretary of State Colin Powell who alone in this grisly administration manages to embody a remaining vestige of America's true greatness.

Thanks to Chris Kee for suggesting we re-post this article.