Facts, Fear and Fundamentalism

In his new book, "500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars," Kurt Eichenwald revives the story of George W. Bush, Bible prophecy and the Iraq war. He also gives us the opportunity to reflect on the dangers of fundamentalism.

The incident, as recalled by Jacques Chirac, finds our president citing apocalyptic Bible references to "Gog and Magog" as he sought French participation in the war. According to one source, Bush told Chirac that the looming war was "a confrontation willed by God." Chirac was so puzzled that he asked for a report from an expert on religion. What he learned led the French president to regard his American counterpart as a religious fanatic.

For many fundamentalists, Gog and Magog represent real forces of evil who will invade Israel to start a period of tribulation before Armageddon and the second coming of Jesus Christ. That Bush would harbor such a concept in his mind, and utter it while functioning as commander-in-chief, suggests he was captivated by apocalyptic belief to a frightening degree.

Bush's frame of mind is frightening because it shows a leader bringing an extreme religious belief into a profound geopolitical crisis that required, instead, honest and careful evaluation. This is the problem with fundamentalist thinking. It swaps deliberation for supernatural concepts and, in the case of prophecy, encourages people to make decisions that help see their vision of the future fulfilled.

If Bush genuinely thought that the end of the world was at hand, he may have felt that he had some pre-ordained role to play. Under such circumstances, a believer could reject evidence that Iraq was not united with al Qaeda and feel certain that weapons of mass destruction would turn-up eventually. Warnings from outsiders may be regarded as the doubts of the faithless.

As an isolated example, the Gog/Magog tale shocks because it is part of a decision-making narrative that had fatal consequences for more than 4,700 coalition personnel, more than 16,000 Iraqi security officers and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Estimates of the number of wounded in the war range well beyond 300,000. The treasure expended exceeded $3 trillion. The suffering endured by the families, communities and nations involved cannot be quantified. Such is the product of fundamentalist thinking.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism informs many positions occupied by the American right. In the case of global warming, a significant number of conservatives deny the scientific evidence because in the Bible, God reassures us that he will never challenge humanity again in the way He did with the great flood. Likewise, fundamentalism supports those who deny the science around evolution. This was explained most recently by Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who noted that evolution, the "big bang" theory and the science of embryology are all based on "lies straight from the pit of Hell." Disturbing as this statement may be, it is matched by the fact that Broun sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He is also a medical doctor.

Besides the obvious damage done to efforts to deal with problems on a rational basis, fundamentalist thinking also invites mischief and manipulation. On a broad basis, it can be used to appeal to prejudices and fuel conspiracy theories. (More than a few Americans think President Obama may be the "anti-Christ.) More specifically, provocateurs can press the fundamentalist button to influence believers. By several accounts Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played on Bush's beliefs by sprinkling religion into his arguments for the Iraq war.

Beyond these obvious effects, fundamentalism in faith helps create an atmosphere in which rigid, fact-resistant thinking becomes more generally acceptable. In our politics today we see many examples of economic arguments that deny both history and mathematics and sometimes veer into fantastic distortions. This is the fundamentalist impulse at work, without the religious overlay.

At the heart of this impulse lies a yearning for a certainty that will overcome the fear and anxiety we feel in the face complex problems and genuine threats. Add to this fear a mistrust of others, and a dash of anti-intellectualism, and you get positions that depend on beliefs instead of information and prophecy instead of study.

Information and study are, of course, among the best ways to respond to fundamentalism, but we must also be willing to confront this phenomenon openly and directly. The same social and legal compact that permits faith-based attacks on science invites the rest of us to speak loudly in opposition to the fundamentalist style in politics. Bush's references to prophecy in the run-up to the war remind us that the stakes in these debates are higher than we can imagine.