Posted: September 2, 2004
onservative evangelicals have high negatives in public opinion polling, due in large part to public fears that they are rigid, closed-minded, unreasonable, and unwilling to respect the separation of church and state.
Many critics of the Bush Administration have attempted to cast Bush himself in such a light, arguing that religious considerations dominate his politics to such a degree that they prevent openness to rational or secular concerns. They accuse him of attempting to breach the "wall of separation" in his faith-based initiative, of a self-righteously moralistic and simplistic approach to foreign affairs, and, even worse, of pursuing a course in the Middle East more heavily informed by the Book of Revelation than by any merely neoconservative policy guru.
Thus some commentators accuse the president of "Manichaeism," of simplistically dividing the world into Good and Evil. Others go further, contending that Bush regards himself as "on a divine mission," aiming to "'rid the world of evil'—at the barrel of a gun." What's worse, they say, is that Bush's thought admits of neither nuance nor charity. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, observes that "President Bush often reminds me of a first-year seminary student, who after one course in theology, thinks his particular view of faith answers all of life's complex problems!" Michael Lind adds that "[t]he sense of charity and humility fostered by most Christian denominations is often missing from Mr. Bush's rhetoric—as it is from much of the fundamentalist Right."
Perhaps the most sweeping indictment of President Bush's religious stance comes from Jim Wallis, the liberal evangelical editor of Sojourners Magazine. According to Wallis, Bush often seems to confuse "nation, church, and God," citing hymns and biblical verses as if they refer to America rather than to God or to the church. This is a "serious theological error that some might say borders on idolatry or blasphemy." For Wallis, Bush's unilateralism overlooks the fallibility and sinfulness of man and nation. A proper appreciation of human fallenness would lead to checks and balances both at home and abroad, and a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, whether expressed by the United Nations, or perhaps "the worldwide church, the international body of Christ." Either way, Bush's America is "a new Rome," which makes Bush a new Caesar.
Three recent books paint a picture of President Bush that enables us to respond to these charges. Of the two "spiritual biographies," David Aikman's is marginally better, especially for those who wish to delve into the political impact of George W. Bush's faith. Stephen Mansfield is a former pastor; Aikman's background is in journalism, and he evidently had more access to Bush's friends and acquaintances inside and outside the White House. Overall, both authors admire their subject and take very seriously the role Bush's faith plays in his private and public lives. Thomas Freiling's collection of Bush's speeches provides a useful supplement, but there is no discernible order to the selections, no index, and no attempt to clearly identify the audiences and settings of the speeches.
Much of Bush's story is typical of the contemporary world of evangelical Protestantism. Throughout his life, he was "churched" in a variety of mainline denominations. Once he met Laura, he joined the Methodist church and was a dutiful pillar of First Methodist in Midland. His faith was not deep and it did not give him direction in life. But over the course of a few years in the mid-1980s, a series of encounters with evangelists like Arthur Blessitt and Billy Graham, together with his serious engagement in a small Bible-study group, transformed him utterly. By 1988, he was his father's point man with the evangelical community— "talking to religious leaders," declares Mansfield, "in a language they understood." What's more, over the course of those years he gained sufficient discipline and direction to eschew what Aikman calls "the charms of Bacchus," freeing him to "live out those [Christian] truths far more powerfully than he must originally have imagined possible."
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This is not to say that Bush's newly deepened faith turned him into a profound theologian. As he told a Houston reporter in 1994, "I'm sure there is some kind of heavy doctrinal difference [between the Episcopal and Methodist churches], which I'm not sophisticated enough to explain to you." Both Aikman and Mansfield are at pains to explain that Bush's faith is particularistic and experiential; it does not come from or result in a systematic engagement in doctrinal, ecclesiological, or theological questions. According to Mansfield, Bush "eschews the theoretical and prefers the simple expressions that lead to action rather than complex theories that he thinks will lead to perpetual debate…. He has not grown in his faith by pondering theological problems or meditating on mystical abstractions. He has grown by watching his heroes, listening to stories and learning of the heavenly through earthly example." Aikman says that "[i]t is probable that he finds himself far more comfortable with a fluid, generic interpretation of the Christian faith than a sharply stamped version of it." Both regard him, in effect, as what C.S. Lewis termed a "mere Christian."
Still, George W. Bush's mere Christianity (or in Jim Wallis's snide but telling phrase, his "self-help Methodism") does not distinguish him from millions of other American evangelicals. Yet if politics happens to be the family business, this approach to one's calling can be highly significant. In A Charge to Keep, his 2000 campaign biography, Bush writes,
My faith frees me. Frees me to put the problem of the moment in proper perspective. Frees me to make decisions that others might not like. Frees me to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next.
Add to that the famous story of his sense that he was called to seek the presidency, and this attitude might seem unsettling, indeed downright scary, to some secularists. Here is an officeholder who understands himself as answering above all to God, who has come to believe that he was put on earth to be president during a time of grave crisis. Can't we expect President Bush, therefore, to be rigid, self-righteously moralistic, and inclined to trust his own intuitions above the advice of experts and the suggestions of allies? Wouldn't he be tempted to use the presidential "bully pulpit" as, well, a pulpit from which to bully dissenters?
Fear not, these authors advise. One of the president's constant themes is the connection between his faith and humility. As he said in his first address to the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in February 2001, "Faith teaches humility…. A recognition that we are small in God's universe yet precious in His sight." On the same occasion the next year, he asserted that "[f]aith teaches humility, and with it, tolerance. Once we have recognized God's image in ourselves, we must recognize it in every human being." On another occasion, he explained, "We find that the plan of the Creator is sometimes very different from our own. Yet, we learn to depend on His loving will, bowing to purposes we don't always understand." "We cannot," he said, "presume to know every design of our Creator, or to assert a special claim on His favor." President Bush does not regard himself as in control of his own destiny, let alone the destiny of the nation as a whole. He does not trust either his reason or his instincts, but reminds himself constantly, through prayer, of his fallibility and the fallibility of all human beings.
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Bush's constant reflection on human weakness and finitude might be taken as a kind of despair, yet he regularly connects these same themes with hope: "The promise of faith is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of grace. And at every step we are secure in knowing that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope—and hope does not disappoint." On the occasion of the space shuttle Columbia disaster, he said,
We can also be confident of the ways of Providence, even when they are far from our understanding. Events aren't moved by blind change and chance. Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God. And that hope will never be shaken.
Divine Providence gives us the hope that, within limits, events and people are intelligible to us, and also that, within limits, we can act effectively on behalf of the good and the right.
But don't President Bush's speeches reflect an essentially Christian worldview, one that could marginalize or alienate non-Christians at home and abroad? As Mansfield notes, Bush's response to the events of 9/11 showed him to be "president of a democracy rather than the 'preacher in chief' his critics thought him to be—and some on the Right wanted him to be." Throughout his presidency, he has been careful to acknowledge his responsibility as the leader of a religiously pluralistic nation, addressing audiences at home and abroad who do not necessarily share his personal faith. "We welcome," he has said, "all religions in America, all religions. We honor diversity in this country. We respect people's deep convictions." Though acknowledging that he has "a fantastic opportunity to let the light shine," he "will do so as a secular politician." His job, he says, "is not to promote a religion but to promote the ability of people to worship as they see fit." He deals with America's (and the world's) religious pluralism by emphasizing the common moral ground that, he believes, all can share. Though human beings can be good without faith, yet faith is a source of goodness for many. Indeed, "faith without works is dead." There is, he says, "a universal call, and that main universal call is to love your neighbor. It extends throughout all faith." One can call these affirmations an expression of natural law, common grace, or public reason. They are certainly, as President Bush repeatedly acknowledged even before 9/11, not specific to one cultural or religious tradition.
In the attacks' aftermath, Bush's famous invocation of the distinction between good and evil also drew the critics' fire. Yet much of what he said doesn't depart from the terms of Lincoln's condemnation of slavery: "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." "Some worry," the president said in June 2002,
that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. Targeting innocent civilians for murder is always and everywhere wrong. Brutality against women is always and everywhere wrong. There can be no neutrality between justice and cruelty, between the innocent and the guilty. We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.
While only the most depraved apologists for terrorism could disagree with what Bush says here, some might wonder still about his tone of conviction, which seems to abandon the humility that otherwise characterizes his faith. Is America as good as terrorism is evil? Are we not, at the very least, all sinners in the sight of God, worthy of condemnation and in need of God's grace?
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush was even bolder, speaking of "our responsibility to history," namely, "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil" (emphasis added). Even if, as sinners go, we are relatively good, to assert that we can actually rid the world of evil is superhuman—the very antithesis of humility. Perhaps we could forgive President Bush and his speechwriters for misspeaking in the heat of the moment, but he made a similar point in his 2002 West Point commencement address, where he promised to "lift this dark threat from our country and from the world." Why not simply identify and resist evil wherever it appears, recognizing that it is part and parcel of our fallen human condition? After all, in his prayer service remarks at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that in "every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom," which suggests that the struggle against evil is unending.
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In his post-9/11 speeches, President Bush has developed what could almost be called a theology of history, beginning from the proposition that "[l]iberty is…the plan of Heaven for humanity," or, in other words, that liberty is "the right and the capacity of all mankind." America was attacked because "we are freedom's home and defender." "America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves—safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life." The president assures that we shall prevail in this contest because, variously, "[t]he current of history runs strongly toward freedom," "our cause is just," people the world over "want their liberty pure and whole," and, finally, "the author of freedom is not indifferent to the fate of freedom." If indeed "the calling of our time" is "the advance of freedom," and if America is "freedom's home and defender," with a "special calling to promote justice and to defend the weak and suffering of the world," then it is perhaps easy to understand how President Bush can speak so confidently of a conflict between good (us) and evil (them). Even so, to act on behalf of the good is a burden and responsibility, not an entitlement.
Of course, freedom can be abused and must be used responsibly. Thus the Bush presidency's major domestic theme, first articulated when Bush was Governor of Texas. As he put it, "My dream is to usher in what I call the 'responsibility era'—an era in which each and every Texan understands that we're responsible for the decisions we make in life; that each of us is responsible for making sure our families come first; that we're responsible for loving our neighbors as we'd like to be loved ourselves; and that we're responsible for the communities in which we live." He used virtually identical language in a May 2004 interview, adding that while "[g]overnments cannot change culture, …I can be a voice of cultural change." This ambitious cultural agenda—often expressed in the language of "compassionate conservatism" —is at bottom an effort to roll back the 1960s, a point vaguely acknowledged but inadequately emphasized by Aikman.
John Kerry and George W. Bush are very different representatives of the generation that came of age in the '60s. They were, and are, on different sides of the barricades. However unengaged he was at the time, Bush has come to regard the remoralization of American life and foreign policy as his duty to the country, to the presidential office, and to his faith.