Of all the things that rankle the critics of George W. Bush, few anger them more than his willingness to apply the word evil. Like President Ronald Reagan two decades before him, Bush operates from a Christian worldview that distinguishes between good and evil. And yet, the specific objections of Bush’s critics tell us as much about them as they do about him. Indeed, their outrage is very selective; they, too, have evils. An examination of these evils on both sides is a worthwhile exercise – a quite illuminating exercise.
Unappreciated is the fact that George W. Bush had publicly identified evil before September 11. In June 2001, he used the word to describe the Holocaust, Nazis and racism. In an August 2000 interview, he said that the Columbine students who killed their Colorado classmates had “hearts” that were “taken by evil.” In December 1999, the Texas governor labeled “smut and pornography,” hate crimes and defacing synagogues as evil.
No one complained of these applications of the word; rather, all sides silently nodded in approval.
Then came the tragedy of September 11. How to describe this act of, well, evil? Employing a word used by Jesus Christ, Bush insisted that the “evildoers” behind September 11 would pay for their crimes. “Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature,” said the President on September 11. He asked his fellow Americans to pray to “a power greater than any of us,” who had “spoken through the ages” in Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me.” Bush announced, “The evil ones awakened a mighty giant.” He promised Americans that the battle ahead would be “a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail.”
In Bush’s eyes, the sheer iniquity of September 11 revealed that in a new war on terror there should be no moral equivalency by Americans. During the Cold War, advocates of moral equivalency held that both the United States and the Soviet Union were equally culpable, that neither country could claim a moral high ground. In the war against terror, Bush wanted no such talk. He “wanted to cut that off right away,” said one of his speechwriters, David Frum. The President used the word evil so often in 2002 that the search engine for the Presidential Documents that year lists “200+” references.
An Axis of Evil
Bush’s identification of evil in the case of the September 11 hijackers actually did not elicit a firestorm of protests from his detractors. Even the most stalwart moral relativists tried to hush their inclinations, including college professors who typically might instruct their students that the hijackers, just like Americans, likewise believed they were right, and, hey, who are we to judge whether the suicide bombers were wrong? … This was a decidedly unpopular outlook after September 11, as its adherents in the academy knew.
Rather, what made these detractors really angry – and gave them new life – was President Bush’s use of a new label: “axis of evil.” In his January 29, 2002, State of the Union speech, Bush identified Iraq, Iran and North Korea as three legs of an “axis of evil.”
This sentiment was rooted in Bush’s personal detestation of the regimes in these nations. Bush told reporter Bob Woodward that he “loathed” North Korean communist despot Kim Jong Il, whose economic policies led to the starvation of 10 to 15 percent of his country’s population (2 to 3 million out of 22 million people) from 1995-99. Kim’s public schools teach North Korean children that their leader does not defecate and that a new star appeared the day he was born. His regime reportedly removes triplets from parents out of fear that one of those triplets will one day remove Kim. The dictator directs the nation’s scarce resources into a nuclear weapons program he promised not to develop.
To Bush, Kim was evil, as was Saddam, as were Iran’s murderous mullahs. And with such a moral declaration, the Texan began stoking the flames of opposition; actually, he threw gasoline on the fire. The mere sure declaration that evil lurked, and could be openly identified among foreign governments, drew lightning. The response to Bush’s Biblical language was fire and brimstone.
Supporters of Bush’s phrase saw it as a salutary revelation to those ignorant of Saddam’s tyranny or Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism or Kim’s madness. They welcomed the candor. The Washington Post, hardly a conservative newspaper, editorialized that what Bush said about the three countries “has the advantage of being true. ”Still, Bush’s critics had had enough. For him to call the Nazis evil was okay. To dub hate crimes evil was fine. Even September 11 could perhaps be characterized as an act of evil. But to apply the terms to these three countries? A line had been crossed.
Racism and Slavery as Evil
As another indication of the selective outrage of the President’s critics, the political left allowed Bush to get away with another declaration of evil after the axis-of-evil statement and even after the Iraq war. Bush did so in a remarkable speech in Senegal, Africa, in July 2003. In that address he complained that as slavery persisted in 18th and 19th century America, his fellow Christian Americans “became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice.” Mercifully, said the President, “the purposes of God” ultimately ensured that the institution of slavery came to an end. While condemning white Christians who did nothing to stop slavery, Bush commended those who “clearly saw this sin and called it by name,” and did something. He borrowed from President John Adams, who called slavery “an evil of colossal magnitude.”
This speech was among the most forceful, scathing anti-slavery statements ever delivered by a president. The Texan closed his remarks by calling slavery “evil” and one of the “greatest crimes in history.”
Liberals loved this speech. And though they frequently object to Bush incorporating his faith into his public life, liberal secularists everywhere did not complain about Bush integrating his religious views in this instance. They also did not protest his identification of this “sin,” nor his perceiving evil’s existence.
Countries as Evil
So what was Bush’s mistake? In the eyes of his leftist critics, where did the President go wrong in using the word evil?
The problem for the left seemed to be that Bush had identified certain nations as evil. To be sure, liberals do this as well. They rightly asserted that South African Apartheid rule and the Nazis were evil. They said the same of Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile and the El Salvador leadership in the 1980s. Liberals call foreign regimes evil all the time. The reality is that they disapprove when conservatives like Bush single out regimes. Yes, it’s a double standard, an inconsistency that is frustrating.
There are other reasons why the left objects to leaders like President Bush naming certain countries as evil. An example is evident in a November 2002 resolution by the left-wing National Council of Churches, which complained that the President “rhetorically divide[s] nations and people into camps of ‘good and evil.’ Demonizing adversaries or enemies denies their basic humanity and contradicts Christians’ beliefs in the dignity and worth of each person as a child of God.”
This is a misunderstanding that leftists routinely hold, perhaps sometimes willingly. They seem to convince themselves that when a leader like George W. Bush calls Iraq, Iran and North Korea evil, he is calling those populations, and the people within them, evil, when in fact he is merely referring to the regimes themselves. Liberals made this same accusation against Ronald Reagan when he called the USSR evil in the 1980s. At the time, historian Garry Wills complained that the Russian daughter of a friend of his wanted to know why the president considered her “irredeemably evil.” The fact is that Reagan did not consider her evil. He constantly made a distinction between the Soviet people, whom he felt were kind people held captive to a brutal regime, and the Bolshevik hierarchy. George W. Bush, obviously, has done the same by regularly acknowledging the difference between the Iraqi people and their jailed dictator.
Moreover, to the left, Bush was guilty of a deeper transgression. In identifying foreign regimes as evil, he had made Reagan’s mistake: he had implied that America was morally better than those nations. And it is that kind of alleged jingoism – so-called self-righteous arrogance and “flag-waving” – that the left finds intolerable. Again, consider the case of Ronald Reagan and the USSR.
In a March 8, 1983, speech in Orlando, Fla., Ronald Reagan shocked sensibilities worldwide when he declared the USSR the “focus of evil in the modern world”; it was an “evil empire.” It was impossible to argue with this claim. The USSR was unspeakably oppressive. The atheistic regime that carried out a “wholesale war on religion,” as Mikhail Gorbachev put it, was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its own people, at a rate and scale that made the Spanish Inquisition look mild. (Vladimir Lenin killed more people in the first six months of the revolution than leaders of the Spanish Inquisition killed over six decades.) A complete catalogue of Kremlin crimes would fill libraries.
Nonetheless, Reagan was vilified for his language.
Two days after the speech, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times described Reagan’s remarks as “sectarian,” “dangerous,” “outrageous” and “simplistic,” before ultimately concluding it was “primitive – the only word for it.” Reagan, said Lewis, had applied “to the most difficult human problem a simplistic theology.” Lewis ended his column: “For a President to attack those who disagree with his politics as ungodly is terribly dangerous.”
Historian Henry Steele Commager asserted, “It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.” This was because of its “gross appeal to religious prejudice.” George Ball, once a high-level official in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a few months later published an open letter to Reagan in which he contemptuously referred to “your obsessive detestation of what you call ‘the evil empire.’”
Just as they would later criticize George W. Bush, leftists attacked Reagan’s presumptuousness by calling him – you guessed it – evil. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill fumed at the 1984 Democratic National Convention: “The evil is in the White House at the present time. And that evil is a man who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations of America…. He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.”
The political left did not complain about this application of the word evil. Condemnation of O’Neill’s castigation was nonexistent. To call Reagan evil was fine. But for Reagan to call the USSR evil was unacceptable.
The Religious Left and Evil
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the left is following this same pattern today with the current president. History is repeating itself. Liberals object to Bush’s haughtiness in daring to identify evil by, remarkably, calling him evil, without seeming to notice the contradiction. Among liberals, the religious left in particular levels this charge. The religious left calls Bush and his policies not just evil but un-Christian, and has even drawn moral equivalencies between Bush and Saddam and Osama. Consider some of these examples from 2002 and 2003:
“In the days of Bush, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, in the days of violence to children, lack of trust in financial institutions, incurable disease and threat of terrorism, Christmas comes to give us songs of hope to sing.”
– Methodist Bishop William Dew, Christmas 2002 message to Methodists
“He [Bush] has brought God in handcuffs. This war is not coming from the council of heaven, it is coming from a council on earth that has not checked with God about their deeper motivations.”
– Pastor James A. Forbes, Jr., Riverside Church, New York City, February 2003
“I cannot profess Christ as my Savior and simultaneously support preemptive war. I can deny Jesus and support war but I will not.”
– Jim Winkler, United Methodist Church, on the war in Iraq, February 26, 2003
“The Bush administration’s war on Iraq violates every value we hold as people of faith and conscience.”
– Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, March 24, 2003
“Isn’t the slaughter of innocents the job of people like Herod?… It’s no wonder that the right-wing, theologically punitive Christianity of George W. Bush is so despised by the rational world.… Jesus might say to George W. Bush and others who claim to be followers of Jesus: ‘And right now, your final judgment test is going to be how you treat my beloved Iraqi children.’”
– Gary Kohls, Catholic New Times, March 2003
“My son died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. This administration did this…. The Al-Qaeda people are probably just as bad as they are.”
– Michael Berg, member of the radical anti-war group International A.N.S.W.E.R. and father of Nick Berg, who was beheaded by Muslim fanatics, May 2004
This is just a sample of the alarming accusations aimed at George W. Bush from leftists. They, too, are quite willing to pinpoint what they believe is evil and call it such, especially when they believe it resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Evil in America
As noted, while Bush has called certain enemies evil, he has not shied from directing the finger at America as well. The same was true for Ronald Reagan.
In the Evil Empire speech, Reagan was careful to say that he was not placing America as blameless; that his nation had its own “legacy of evil.” Reagan actually applied two evil references to the United States before he leveled them against the USSR: He cited America’s past denial of rights to minority citizens and the presence of hate groups in the nation. The left had no problem with this; it was fine to call the United States evil, but not the USSR.
In the Evil Empire speech, Reagan aimed to denounce moral equivalency. To Reagan, the idea that the United States and USSR were moral equals, each similarly at fault for the Cold War, was rubbish. As he told a crowd in Miami in May 1985, “Don’t let anyone tell you we’re morally equivalent with the Soviet Union…. We are morally superior, not equivalent, to any totalitarian regime, and we should be darn proud of it.”
In short, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were consistent: they saw evil among genuine evils at home and abroad, and dared to name and excoriate them. Their adversaries on the left, however, perceive evil only in some of these instances. This is reflective of the left’s moral relativism and its cultural relativism: a notion that asserts that all cultures are equal – none can claim superiority over another. When put to the test, the left always backs down on this one: Nary a feminist professor, for instance, will endorse the Taliban’s treatment of women in Afghanistan, Castro’s so-called “homophobia” in Cuba, or the practice of female circumcision (read: genital mutilation) in some African cultures.
Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” In our fallen world, the greatest damage is perpetrated by evil regimes with secret police, with deadly arms, and with little to no conscience, some of which today harbor or sponsor terrorists. Someone needs to differentiate such foes.
The left will counter by saying that that is the rub: it is dangerous to have a president naming certain countries as evil. No, the danger would be an uninformed, immoral president deciding such things. But George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan never saw France or Switzerland or Australia or Brazil or Japan as evil, because the governments in those countries were not pernicious. Instead, Bush and Reagan recognized evil where it genuinely existed: the Soviet regime and those in Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. That’s not dangerous, that’s common sense.