In his 2000 book, Time for Truth (available in our bookstore here), Os Guinness calls Bill Clinton America’s first post-modern president. Post-modernism is the view emerging out of late 20th century existentialism that rejects the existence of God resulting in skepticism and relativism, and advocating the rejection of truth, certainty, and any moral foundation except that which can be created by an individual or group. It has led us to multi-culturalism, (that all cultures have equal value), historical revisionism, and political posturing.
Post-modernism recognizes the failure of the Enlightenment project (the unabashed trust in human reason) and places radical limitations on human reason because a finite human mind cannot understand an infinitely complex universe. Since we cannot know everything, we cannot know anything. This doubting of all truth and values leads to a culture devoid of substance where everything is image and story-telling. Truth is relegated to whatever those in positions of power determine to be true or right. Power is gained by creating stories, images and perceptions that appeal to people that stir them to become “believers in” or part of the story.
Guinness argues Clinton was post-modern because he was so adept at avoiding the truth and creating his own truth even in his re-creation of language. Statements such as “what is, is” or “I did not have sex with that woman,” or “I didn’t inhale” (the marijuana) are prime examples of this. Guinness accuses him of prevarication, which is distorting the truth or telling falsehoods. Reverend Jesse Jackson said of Clinton in 1992, “There’s nothing he won’t do. He’s immune to shame. Move past all the nice posturing and get really down in there in him, you find absolutely nothing…nothing but an appetite.” Guinness even quotes Clinton White House staffer and now CNN commentator, Paul Begala, as saying that the first rule of politics is: “Define and create the reality you want.”
This is the true legacy of the Bill Clinton White House. And now in his post-presidential years Clinton has even been skilled enough to persuade people to believe his newest narrative, to embrace the image he now projects to not only as a presidential survivor but to now reinvent himself as a respectable elder statesman.
It is in this post-modern era of history that G.W. Bush came sweeping into the White House in the 2000 election carried by an underlying hope held by many Americans, especially conservative and Christian ones, that he might reverse this drift toward post-modernism, even if they did not know it by that name. They wanted a return to absolute values, to principled decency, and to a government that stood for something good. It should be understood that there is only one way to reverse or to overcome this non-rational, non-system called post-modernism and that is to go back not to the system-building optimistic humanism of recent generations but to depend on a transcendent value system based on an absolute transcendent reference point.
Francis Schaeffer would describe it as returning to a God who is really there who has spoken true truth to His creatures. Many hoped that G.W. Bush would do this. There was hope that he would take a stand for truth, that he would be courageous and principled, and that he would do what is right because it is right and because it is God’s truth. After all, he was a conservative Christian. Early in his administration he did some of this. He stood on the right side of the embryonic stem cell issue, he signed the ban on partial-birth abortion and post-911 he offered Americans a return to true values, historical patriotism, and a sense of goodness.
Maybe America wasn’t dead after all. Maybe the idea of a principled America based on a belief in God and true inherent values could be rekindled. But something went terribly wrong. And now by the end of his final term we find him powerless, and the reality of a bankrupt economy metaphorically pictures the White House perfectly. We have a presidency which should give up and declare bankruptcy for it is a ghost house. No one is at home.
What happened to the hope that was part of this administration? Where did it go wrong? How is George Bush a product of post-modernism? If Clinton was the first post-modern President, was the election of 2008 the first post-modern election? How is President-elect Obama a representative or spokesman of post-modernism? And finally, what is a conservative Christian to do now? These questions will be addressed in subsequent commentaries.