Research details Bush's use of religion to sell war on terror, Iraq

08/09/04

Press was deferential to president in aftermath of 9/11, book shows

A skillful mixing of religion and politics helped President Bush silence critics and sell his policies on terrorism and Iraq to the nation, according to a new book that analyzes hundreds of public communications and news reports.

As Bush makes his case for a second term, the research by David Domke documents how during his first term the president effectively linked religious terminology with political goals in the turbulent months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In all but one of Bush's 15 national addresses between 9/11 and the end of major combat in Iraq, for example, he cast the campaign against terrorism as a simple struggle of good (America) vs. evil, according to Domke's book. And in four of the speeches, Bush issued explicit declarations that administration policies and goals were in line with divine powers.

Yet only two of the 326 post-speech editorials in 20 leading newspapers challenged the religiously derived notion of good vs. evil, and none questioned the president's statements about God's will.

"In a time of crisis, the certainty conveyed by what I call 'political fundamentalism' put forward by the administration silenced the Democrats and had great appeal to the press," said Domke, a UW associate professor of communication and adjunct professor of political science. "And yet with so many around the globe expressing a different view, the press failed its readers by uncritically echoing these fundamentalist messages."

The findings appear in Domke's book, "God Willing?: Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the 'War on Terror,' and the Echoing Press," just released by Pluto Press (London and Ann Arbor), a detailed portrait of how the administration grounded its war on terrorism in religion and how a deferential mainstream press helped pave the way.

Domke's study focused on the 20 months between Sept. 11, 2001, and May 1, 2003, when Bush delivered his "Mission Accomplished" speech on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln.

In addition to Bush's national addresses, Domke analyzed 18 of his public statements about the USA Patriot Act, 121 of his comments about homeland security, and 81 of his statements about Iraq, plus the justification of the pre-emptive foreign policy in a speech at West Point and in the administration's National Security Strategy document. Also included were more than 100 statements by other administration officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Then Domke examined the response of news media, by dissecting TV and newspaper reports on the administration and its policies related to the "war on terrorism." This included every terror-related news story in the New York Times and Washington Post during the three weeks after Sept. 11, and several hundred newspaper articles and network television stories.

The coverage, Domke found, gave uncritical voice to four key fundamentalist messages from the administration:

    1) Simplistic, black-and-white conceptions of the political landscape.

    2) Calls for immediate action on administration policies as a necessary part of the nation's "calling" and "mission" against terrorism.

    3) Declarations about the will of God for America and for the spread of U.S. conceptions of freedom and liberty.

    4) Claims that dissent from the administration was unpatriotic and a threat to the nation.

"These messages were rooted in a religiously conservative worldview," Domke said, "yet they were often framed by both the administration and the news media to emphasize a sense of nationalism.

"That made the fundamentalist approach attractive, or at least palatable, to the press and public," Domke added, "in a period when Americans were trying to understand what had happened and why."

It was not until nearly two years after 9/11 that the administration relinquished its full-court religious press, Domke said, and the news media began to question their role in helping the administration to control public discourse.

"All of this came at great cost to democracy and the public," he said, "both of which were roundly ignored by the administration as it pursued a religiously grounded vision of America in the 21st century."

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