CU religious studies Professor Ira Chernus pulls his graying hair back into a ponytail and speaks with a laidback ease reminiscent of the free-loving sixties, but this scholar has been tackling some very heavy issues.
Chernus had been in religious academia for 30 years when he became interested in the relationship between religion and U.S. foreign and security policies. His newest book, “Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin,” released in August, explores the Evangelical roots of good versus evil in President Bush’s post-9/11 war on terror.
“Bush is an Evangelical Christian who believes in original sin,” Chernus said. “There are some who are irredeemably evil, and we are all constantly fighting temptation within. Like the war on terror, this is a fight that will go on forever, thus making the fight against terrorists a fight between the godly and the evil-doers.”
Prior to 9/11, Chernus argues, Bush was on a moral crusade to return the country to a “pre-radical sixties” level of decency and responsibility over personal and sexual pleasures. While running for governor of Texas, Chernus said Bush believed the American people had too much of an “if it feels good, do it” mentality.
Chernus “makes a point to make his views known,” said sophomore environmental studies major Alayne Lewis, who is taking Chernus’ Religion and Contemporary Society class. “He is liberal, anti-war, hates Bush and talks about the sixties and seventies a lot.”
“What Bush and the neo-cons did after the attacks on the World Trade Center was transpose basic images of good versus evil domestically to the global arena,” Chernus said. “This is why he was so successful; by battling evil, we are good. It’s almost as if the battle is an end onto itself.”
He said the president coats himself in a “rigid sense of certainty that has been very helpful in his political career.”
The public has been clamoring for a leader that projects certainty in the face of uncertain times, he said.
“Bush has been under so much pressure to admit wrongdoing with Iraq because the public has lost an image-specific and embodied evildoer,” he said. “Who are we fighting in Iraq? It’s vague and that’s why Bush is losing public support.”
Beyond the scope of the war on terror, the neoconservative battle against sin can be applied to anyone with the same measurable success, he said.
“It isn’t so much who the next sinner is as long as the battle exists, we have a list of domestic candidates, secular radicalists, drug dealers and the like,” Chernus said. “The most obvious choice globally would be Iran, but these things change really fast.”
Looking ahead to 2008, Chernus does not believe the next president will follow a very different path. Democrats and moderate Republicans agree that fundamentalist terrorists are the biggest threat facing America, he said, and while there may be a “change in style,” it would meet the same end as Bush’s current plan.
“What we see now is a coalition to change policy. It wouldn’t be the same emphasis on sin, Democrats and moderate Republicans tend to think in more practical terms of protecting things like global free trade, but both sides want the same end result,” he said. “They’ll create more problems than they solve in the long run.”
Chernus said the Bush administration is not making the U.S. more secure by labeling certain groups “evil,” and that future politicians must take a very different approach to the war on terror.
“The United States can’t possibly hope to fight terrorists by remaining the only dominant super-power and trying to enforce a capitalist economy on the rest of the world,” he said. “This only promotes aggression towards our country.”
According to Chernus’ publisher, Paradigm Publishers, his book brings to light the goal of the war on terror: to fight monsters forever and give Americans an excuse to resist changes that are sorely needed. American tradition is attached to religious bases of tolerance and allowing others to live in a manner of their own choosing, and it is to this ideology that the country must return to, he said.
“If other nations choose paths different from our own, then we must learn to accept that as okay,” Chernus said. “We must treat people of different walks of life as human beings and not as monsters, only that will make us more secure.”
“I took the title for my book from a famous John Quincy Adams quote, ‘America does not go out looking for monsters to destroy,’ and we would do well to remember this,” he said. “Let’s worry about ourselves for a while.”
Chernus has also published several works on American foreign policy during the Cold War, including, “A Shuddering Dawn: Religious Studies and the Nuclear Age,” and “Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Meaning of Nuclear Weapons.”