Friday, February 12, 2010

Bush, Obama and Scapegoating

The cultural critic Rene Girard argued that human society became possible when "primitive" humanity discovered the value of scapegoats.  Girard argued that the desires of human beings for limited objects resulted in violence.  Not everyone could have the same desirable things or individuals. He further suggested that desire was created by imitation.  We learned what is desireable by obseving the desires of another.  Introduce a new toy into a room of two year olds playing quietly.  When one approaches the toy and begins to play with it, the others will suddenly notice and also want to play with it.  Toddler violence ensues.  Everyone cannot play with the toy.  Girard argues that primitive societies discovered that the wars could stop if a scapegoat could be found--someone who could be blamed for the violence; someone upon whom the whole group could inflict their rage and fear.  This was the beginning of sacrifice and it diverted the violence from the community members themsevles to the "other", the scapegoat.  As long as the sacrificial system worked, peace was possible.  A "sacrificial crisis" occured when the old enemy was no longer effective in diverting the anger.  Once again the community was subject to the war of all against all.  Once again it needed to find a scapegoat.

I would suggest that the United States is currently in a "sacrifical crisis."  There are some political scientists that believe that a Democracy lacks coherence without an enemy.  For the better part of the 20th century the enemy of the United States was Communism.  Our rage and fear were particularly directed to Soviet Russia.  Our political differences were muted because of our common disdain for Russia and its various client states.  Additionally, the evil of Russia convinced us of our own goodness--at least in comparison.  But the latter part of the 20th century produced a sacrificial crisis.  First the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis suggested we were not as good as we thought we were.  The old unity began to show cracks.  With the fall of communism in Russia and elsewhere the old enemy dissolved.  Radical Islam has made a bid to replace communism.  But Islam is a religon and not localized in a particular state.  But a larger problem hinders radical Islam from being an effective scapegoat.  We are increasingly aware that  we cannot blame Islam per se or all Muslims for violence against the United States.  Many Muslims offer counter examples to the hate of a few.  Radical Islam makes an imperfect scapegoat, an ambiguous scapegoat.

In this context we have turned on ourselves.  We have always had divisions in our politics and at times those divisions have been vicious.  One needs only to think of the Civil War.  But over the last few decades a new and ugly political discourse has emerged.  Lacking an appropriate scapegoat we have turned on each other.  Beginning especially with the Presidency of Bill Clinton and continuing with the Presidencies of George Bush and Barak Obama we have vilified the Presidents of the United States, effectively directing our violence against them.  We have made them scapegoats.  This is not to say that these Presidents were innocent of wrongdoing or error.  None of them is beyond criticism.  But I would argue that the viciousness, the cruelty of the attacks on them far exceeded what was necessary to critique their policies.   Bush was called a facist.  Obama is called a socialist--and worse.  For the left Bush was evil and could do nothing right.  For the right Obama is evil and can do nothing right.  All the rage and bile born of rational and irrational fears were and are poured over them.

Scapegoating was unveiled as an evil by the cross. However effective it was at tamping down the violence of a society it required victims.  The Bible demonstrates that scapegoating victimized innocent people or at least people who were not so guitly as to deserve sacrifice.  Jesus died as the final scapegoat, the scapegoat to end all scapegoats.  As Christians we no longer need to scapegoat, because we have been shown the love of God.  We do not need to resort to rivalry and violence because we have been shown love.  Christians should not be involved in the scapegoating of Bush, Obama or anyone else.  Irrational hatred is a moral evil.  Our opponents should be treated with respect and love, not mocked, excoriated, and disdained.


  1. When my husband was pastoring in the last two churches, I noticed a parallel in the way the he and President Bush were being treated which really gave me a lot of respect for Bush. In those churches, everything was the pastor's fault until finally they would call for his resignation. They did this to pastor after pastor. I think it is sad that the church can be a vicious as the society instead of being the light that it is called to be.

  2. Yes. For some churches a focus on the pastor keeps them from facing their own brokeness as a community and as individuals. The pastor is "sacrificed" to maintain the unity of the group.

  3. Carrie,

    Really those churches need more accountability. We need whistle blowers for churches who treat their pastors poorly.

    I am so sorry about those churches. How are you and your husband doing now?