When contemplating the figure of George W. Bush, the historian of religion—and really, any thoughtful citizen—is presented with a very strange paradox and apparent contradiction. On the one hand, this is by many accounts the most outspokenly religious president in U.S. history—a man who claims to have been not only saved but called by God to political office, who uses extensive references to scripture throughout his public speeches (both explicit and subtly double-coded), who has denounced certain nations as part of an insidious "Axis of Evil," and who promises to bring freedom as a "Gift from the Almighty" to benighted regions of the world like the Middle East. Bush's remarkable display of piety has been noted not just by the Religious Right, his strongest base of support, and the mainstream media, but also increasingly by historians of religion. Strong morality and grounding in faith have been the bulwarks of his administration and major reasons for his widespread public appeal; and, according to some estimates, they are among the most important factors in the 2004 elections.
Yet on the other hand, the Bush administration is also arguably the most secretive in U.S. history, displaying an intense preoccupation with information control. Bush and Cheney have been described by various observers as having an "obsession with secrecy," even a "secrecy fetish" that is "the most secretive of our lifetime" and "worse than Watergate." From his first days in office, Bush was busy at work trying to conceal his own Texas gubernatorial records and the presidential records of Ronald Reagan (and those of then vice-President, George H.W. Bush); meanwhile, vice-President Cheney was assembling a highly secretive energy task force, while refusing Congress knowledge of its membership or workings. This concern with secrecy has intensified dramatically in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Not only has there been much debate over the question of what the administration knew, did not know, or ignored about possible terrorist attacks prior to 9/11, but more importantly, there has been intense controversy over the administration's use of intelligence to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The accusations of dissimulation do not, however, end with Iraq. In addition, Bush has been charged with concealing many other sensitive matters, such as ties to corporate scandals like Enron, the effects of its environmental policies, and, well, really almost everything. As some critics have suggested, the Bush administration simply dissembles as a matter of policy.
At the same time, ironically, this administration has also displayed a remarkable preoccupation with the surveillance and monitoring of its own citizenry. Particularly in the wake of 9/11 and new measures like the USA Patriot Act, public rights to privacy have been significantly restricted, even as the government's transparency has been radically reduced.
So how, then, are we to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory aspects of the current administration, this intense public display of religiosity and this obsession with concealment? The kind of secrecy being deployed by the Bush administration is clearly very different from the kind familiar to most readers of Esoterica. It has little if anything to do with the doctrines of “correspondences” and “living nature,” with the use of spiritual “imagination” or “the experience of transmutation” described by Antoine Faivre; nor does it involve the sort of “metaphysical gnosis” and “cosmological gnosis” described by Arthur Versluis. It is, however, no less relevant to our understanding of religion and secrecy, and it forces those of us who are interested in esotericism to deal seriously with other uses of religious secrecy that have more explicit political implications. The Bush administration, we will see, does use many strategies and tactics that have much in common with traditional Western esotericism – strategies of rhetorical double-coding, the art of “writing between the lines” and a skillful use of obscurity. Yet the ends for which these strategies are used are quite different, having less to do with spiritual transformation than with raw political power, in Canetti’s sense.