March 9, 2003

Nervous or Comforted?

Seems there's a lot of ink being spilled in recent days on the subject of George Bush's religious faith, and the question of if, and how much that faith informs his policy-making and how his expressions of his faith are perceived by people here and abroad. (Since I am an expert on nothing related to this topic, least of all the theology part, let me say that I simply wanted to summarize some of the stuff I've been seeing and get my own layman's observations in, in typical long-winded fashion)

Some of Bush's domestic detractors are afraid that his openness about his Christianity may tend to put some people off. The Europeans, in their post-religious sophistication are... well, put off. The Arab world would have the rest of mankind believe that George Bush is a great "danger" to the world not in spite of, but because of his particular brand of faith in God.

With all the talk of Bush being "simplistic" and stubbornly blind to the "nuances" of the situation that are so evident to sophisticated elites, Le Monde editorializes with their "nuanced" take on Bush's Christian faith (imperfectly translated, no doubt):

And God in all that? Well, God has a hot line to George W. Bush. Or rather the reverse. Bush has made God American and Christian . God saved Bush, the sinner, lost on the path of alcohol and vice. God made Bush Chair. Bush is thus the President of God on Earth.

I see.

Here at home, it seems that while many Americans are given comfort by the idea of a religious man in the White House, others are clearly unsettled by his expressions of his faith. Newsweek has an excellent cover story this week (March 10) entitled "Bush and God", by Howard Fineman, in which he quotes one observer:

“People appreciate his devotion to faith, but, in the context of war, there is a fine line, and he is starting to make people nervous,” says Steve Waldman, the editor and CEO of Beliefnet, a popular and authoritative Web site on religion and society. “They appreciate his moral clarity and decisiveness. But they wonder if he is ignoring nuances in what sounds like a messianic mission.”

In a sidebar piece in Newsweek, one Martin E. Marty, a Lutheran minister and divinity school professor defines "the problem" in a piece called "The Sin of Pride":

One hopes that the Bush people will keep in mind that claims of God’s always being on our side are alienating to many former or would-be allies.

Did I miss something? When did Bush say that God is always "on our side"? Marty continues:

He gives notice that our military power and moral choices will dominate the world. He follows and leads ever since he first, as he put it, “heard the call” to seek the presidency, and after Iraq he promises to transform the Middle East into utopia.

He does? Utopia? What I have heard him say is that the example of a government by the consent of the governed, somewhere in the Middle East could inspire others in the region to the realize that they are not "destined" to a life under tyrants, dictators, kings and other despots. If anything he has emphasized how difficult it will be, not only in Iraq, but elsewhere as well, to nurture self-government where it has no roots, traditions, or institutions. To encourage democracy and to observe that it can be "contagious", is to "promise utopia" according to Marty.

Not to obsess with the Marty article, but one more gem:

More dangerous is that Bush’s God talk will set the tinderbox that is the Muslim world on fire. Neither the president nor the American Christian majority have to yield their own faith in order to get along, but how they express it matters.

I guess Marty missed some of that "kill the infidels" talk when he blithely suggests that American Christians need not "yield their faith in order to get along" with those who fly airplanes into skyscrapers in the name of their own little "vision thing". I wonder if, instead of dying, simply choosing a life of submission to Sharia Islamic law would constitute "yielding" to Mr. Marty. But it is "Bush's God talk" that is "dangerous".

He ends on a more optimistic note, but the piece seems to do (more subtly than the European and Arab press of course) what Bush's critics have tended to lately. That is, taking his public pronouncements and demonstrations of his Christian faith, and then imputing to him certain policy goals, statements he hasn't made, even messianic visions, and the belief in his own divine inspiration to carry out his "crusade". Actual evidence of any such personality complex is nowhere in sight.

Fred Barnes critiques Marty somewhat in his newest article, "God and Man in the Oval Office".

But does the president think God is behind his foreign policy or any other policy? Yes, according to religion professor Martin E. Marty,..... "The problem isn't with Bush's sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he's doing God's will." Evident? Marty offers no evidence--no Bush quote or comment and no disclosure by a Bush confidant. And he's never met with Bush or talked to him, according to the president's aides. I've searched for a Bush declaration, explicit or implicit, that his policies come from God. I haven't found one.....

No one has done a definitive word count, but Bush has probably talked a bit more about religious faith than other presidents. While he readily invokes God, he carefully avoids mention of Jesus Christ, and he calls for tolerance of all faiths. His comments have been confined to four specific areas: comforting people in grief, citing faith's ability to improve lives, commenting on the mysterious ways of providence, and mentioning God's concern for humanity.

The pot was stirred again at the Press conference the other night when Bush responded enthusiastically to a reporter's question about how he was guided by his faith in the preparation for possible war. Bush's response:

My faith sustains me. Because I pray daily. I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength. If we were to commit our troops, if we were to commit our troops, I would pray for their safety. And I would pray for the safety of innocent Iraqi lives as well ... One thing that's really great about our country is there are thousands of people who pray for me - who I'll never see, be able to thank. But it's a humbling experience to think that people I will never have met have lifted me and my family up in prayer. And for that I'm grateful. That's, it's been, it's been a comforting feeling to know that is true.

I'm going to try to remember that quote next time I see a picture of a protestor with a "Bush = Hitler" sign.

Russ Douthat, in a stimulating new site called The American Scene, takes note of a few of the things that Bush didn't say that night:

So let's see -- Bush did not say that "God has told me to go to war," or "God will fight on our side," or "I know the Almighty's will in this matter," or anything that might be interpreted as even vaguely scary or unhinged. He said that he prayed daily -- for guidance, for the safety of our troops, and even for Iraqi lives -- and that he is grateful and humbled that many people pray for him. Now, if such innocuous statements of general piety smack of theocracy, or fascism, or what-have-you to Europe's bankrupt intellectual classes, then that, frankly, is their problem.

I have an appreciation for people who are wary of certain elements of the "Religious Right". I am grateful that the Republican Party, and the mainstream conservative movement in this country have distanced themselves from Falwell and Robertson and their ilk, recognizing them as the kooks and bigots they are. People who think those two are listened to by the Bush White House haven't been paying attention, (or have partisan reasons for wanting to maintain the appearance of a connection.)

That said, I just don't think we can paint Bush with the same broad brush. For the time being, count me among the comforted, not the nervous. Among those who see a humble and basically good man, not a dangerous one. Fred Barnes again, summing up with words I wish I'd said:


Bush said he prays to God for guidance, wisdom, and forgiveness, and he said the same when asked at his East Room press conference last week how his faith guides him on the eve of war with Iraq. He said nothing about praying for God's marching orders.....For anyone offended by Bush's reference to God as the source of human rights... a little history might be instructive. "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?" That question was asked by Thomas Jefferson, a deist, not a religious zealot. "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the Hand of God," John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address. No one was offended by Kennedy's comment, which Bush echoed in his State of the Union address. And no one should be offended now.


UPDATE: David Brooks, in the Weekly Standard weighs in with his take on Bush's "certainty", making the point that his "intellectual" critics can afford to take note of, and analyze all the "nuances" of the situation. They have no decisions to make, no responsibilities to bear.

Posted by dan at March 9, 2003 12:31 AM