The phrase “Shock and Awe” first appeared as the title of a 1996 National Defense University military doctrine by Harlan Ullman and James Wade. Most Americans know “shock and awe” as the initial bombing campaign of the Iraq War. However, “shock and awe” results when a politician combines the rhetoric of religion with the rhetoric of war to intimidate his constituents. Frightened constituents are both “shocked” and “awed.” The leaders depicted in the Yale Rep’s recent production of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play – Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan – appropriate the symbolism of the Passion of the Christ to advance their own causes. Today, these politicians present themselves as “compassionate conservatives” and “mavericks.”
In Passion Play, according to Sarah Ruhl, the “language of God is intertwined with the language of war.” Ruhl’s Queen Elizabeth I wants her “subjects to be clean.” The Queen emphasizes a kind of spiritual and moral purity that can only be achieved through strict obedience to authority, and appropriates the language of religion to sanction religious warfare. Hitler wants the Passion continued because the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the finest example of “the Jewish menace.” Reagan wants the Passion continued because America needs a “spiritual awakening.”
This is the rhetoric of “shock and awe.”
Ruhl provides historical examples of politicians who have used religion as a tool, but many present-day politicians have commandeered religion to advance their own political careers. Ullman and Wade wanted to target the “will, perception, and understanding” of their adversaries. In the process of destroying adversaries, “deception, confusion, misinformation, and disinformation, perhaps in massive amounts, must be employed.” The “deception” of the American people will not result from the use of powerful bombs. It will result from eager politicians’ attempts to curry favor with the American people by appealing to their sensibilities with religious rhetoric.
During a debate at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, John McCain threatened to follow Osama bin Laden “to the gates of Hell.” McCain romanticizes terrorism, positioning himself as the savior of the American people. The forces of good (John McCain) and evil (bin Laden) will battle at Hell’s doorstep, and the mightiest man will emerge victorious. If you do not support McCain’s proposal, you are against him. Good citizens should fear God, and McCain’s fusion of religious and political rhetoric reminds Americans that challenging the government is a sin against God.
This rhetoric also stokes the fires of the culture wars. Many politicians wage (or appear to wage) war against gay marriage and abortion. These issues provide heated debate, but do not directly affect the lives of many Americans. Legislation regarding gay marriage does not apply to heterosexual gay marriage opponents. Women who are opposed to abortions will choose not to receive them. Politicians should focus on providing access to affordable healthcare and quality education. Healthcare and education directly affect the quality of one’s life. A person must be healthy and educated in order to fully participate in the community.
However, these issues do not receive the attention that they merit because they are not titillating. Discussions of gay marriage and abortion cut to the core of many Americans’ religious beliefs. Politicians can manipulate the fears of the devout by creating a world in which gay marriage and abortion signal moral decay. Gay marriage and abortion — like bin Laden — must be fought to the death for the sake of the American people.
These politicians present the personal choices of a few as a threat to the health of the many. The politician becomes a hero — an individual sent to save the American people from their vices – instead of a mediator who manages conflict between opposing factions of the populace.
I do not advocate the abandonment of faith. Faith provides comfort in a world that is increasingly difficult to navigate. Faith is powerful, and for this reason, it should not be appropriated by politicians who want to play on the heartstrings of the American people and secure votes. Separation of church and state allows the two spheres to act independently.
Thus, the line between church and state cannot be blurred, and the debate cannot be galvanized by a charismatic leader. Likewise, the American people cannot allow themselves to be manipulated by their leaders.
In Ruhl’s words, don’t be a part of a politician’s “big plan.”
Kristen Wright is a freshman in Davenport College.