Newsweek's cover: "Bush and God"
The last few weeks have seen so many articles on President Bush's faith and how it affects his policy that it's hardly news anymore. We've linked to a bajillion of them, but in case you missed them all, here's the summary:
Gee, Bush sure is using a lot of religious imagery and language these days. Yep. A whole lot of it, too. A bunch of experts (mainly liberals like the head of the Interfaith Alliance, which was created to counteract the Christian Coalition, and Princeton University's Elaine Pagels) are worried about it, saying it "demonizes" opponents. After all, you know, we can't say that God is on our side. But conservative evangelicals like the language and will repay him with votes. But it scares potential allies overseas, and American enemies (oops, there's that dangerous "us and them" language) can use it to say Bush is on a "crusade" and stir up more anti-American foment. Besides, who's to say God's on our side, anyway?
There are variations on that theme, but that's the basic tune. Fortunately, the main article in Newsweek's "Bush and God" cover package has enough original notes to keep it interesting. For the most part, the magazine lets Martin Marty and religion editor Ken Woodward take note of the debate over Bush's religious language in sidebars and lets Howard Fineman concentrate on Bush's spiritual biography.
Of greatest note is Fineman's revisiting of Bush's conversion story. "In campaign biographies, ghostwriters highlight the role that Billy Graham played in launching Bush on … his 'Walk.' The truth is more prosaic, and explains far more about Bush's evolving views, not only of faith but of government."
More influential than Graham, Fineman writes, was Bush's involvement in Community Bible Study. The "scriptural boot camp … gave him, for the first time, an intellectual focus," he says. "Here was the product of elite secular education—Andover, Yale, and Harvard—who, for the first time, was reading a book line by line with rapt attention. And it was the Bible. … A jogger and marathoner for years, Bush found in Bible study an equivalent mental and spiritual discipline, which he would soon need to steel himself for his main challenge in life to that point: to quit drinking."
Fineman also dismisses the idea that Bush's sure-mindedness (and what critics call his arrogance) is a direct result of his Christianity: "Faith didn't make Bush a decisive person. He's always been one. His birthright as a Bush gives him a sense of obligation to serve, and a sense of an entitlement to lead. … Still, faith helps Bush pick a course and not look back."
Woodward's sidebar takes up Fineman's comments on Bush's small-group spirituality. Presidents who found God in denominationally affiliated churches were more predictable, he said. Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher Jimmy Carter, for example, wasn't much different from other Southern Baptist Sunday school teachers.
"There is … nothing in the personal piety of small-group Christianity that can ground a faith-based vision for governing the body politic," he writes. "Translating faith into political principles is what denominations try to do. But Bush's 'compassionate conservatism' could not be less like the United Methodist Church's relentlessly liberal social creed." (Bush is a Methodist.)
In another sidebar, Martin Marty complains that Bush's faith is sinfully prideful. "The problem isn't with Bush's sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he's doing God's will," he says. "Christian theologians are wary when Bush uses the words of Jesus to draw neat lines and challenge the whole rest of the world: if you are not for us, or with us, you are against us. … The Bible presents a more nuanced God." Still, Marty credits Bush with having historically corrected his mistakes.
We here at CT were particularly surprised, however, at this sentence: "We all knew that after a reckless youth and a fall into alcohol addiction, George W. Bush experienced a Christian conversion of the now standard 'born again' sort and settled down." In the mainline-evangelical split Marty is firmly in the mainline camp, but such denigration of a conversion experience is very surprising to hear from him.
"In the future, when Bush speaks about God and this country, as he assuredly will, one hopes he will heed the example of Abraham Lincoln," Marty concludes. "That president accompanied his seeking with a theological affirmation too rarely heard now: 'the Almighty has His own purposes.'
In yesterday's Chicago Tribune, however, senior correspondent Michael Tackett takes issue with such a comparison. "President Abraham Lincoln cast the Civil War in a religious context, especially in his second inaugural address. His memorable phrase about a 'house divided' had scriptural roots, and other presidents often have asked for God's blessing at times of national peril. Bush is speaking in a different context, certainly different from Lincoln, in that his words are not merely digested in the United States but all over the world, instantly and by nations that are far less overtly religious."
That global context, Tackett writes, guarantees that Bush's religious language gets attacked from post-Christian Europe and the Islamic world. "It seems very counterproductive," says Michael Waldman, former speechwriter for President Clinton. "If you are trying to rally the world in support of a war, especially an elective war, don't use language that lets people around the world say you are a Bible thumper rather than somebody looking at the facts."
But former Bush speechwriter David Frum counters, "If there is one thing I could cure our European friends of, it is that Bush's religion makes him moralistic, hasty or intemperate. It is actually one of the major forces that restrains him and makes him more patient."
The Tribune also has a great quote from White House spokesman Ari Fleischer: "The president speaks as he speaks because he believes as he believes." Weblog is sure that the folks at Newsweek wish Fleischer had said it before Friday so it could have been included in the issue.
In fact, University of Virginia historian James W. Ceaser, writing in The Weekly Standard, suggests that it's because the president speaks what he believes that some are upset. "It has, of course, come to be accepted in modern times that presidents will speak of History, provided only that they mean nothing by it," he writes. "Whenever presidents wish to elevate the tone of an address, they invoke History. History becomes the omniscient observer, watching over the president's and the nation's shoulder. History--we all know the phrases--is 'judging' or 'testing' us, it will 'record what we do,' or, in its sterner moments, 'will not forgive us.' Used in this way, History has become no more than a figure of speech, the great empty suit of modern rhetoric. The problem with President Bush, so the charge against him goes, is that he has gone beyond these merely ritual usages. When he speaks about 'Providence' and 'history,' as he did in his State of the Union address, he unfortunately takes his own words seriously."
Ceaser's piece suggests that Bush's views on Providence demonstrate that he's humble, not arrogant, about his faith—and that he is taking a Lincolnesque view of his job and his country. "The focus has been on duty," he writes, not mastery and control.
Meanwhile, The Oregonian's routine roundup of comments about Bush's religion (see generic summary above) includes some interesting analysis from Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals. Presidents aren't theologians, he says, "but they have every right to use theological language. Why? Because in our form of government, they're not just the head of [their] party but the head of the state. In that role, it's a president's job to be national healer and consoler. … To describe Saddam Hussein as evil—what some theologians have objected to—in my estimation, is entirely appropriate. It sets off [Bush's] opponents[, who believe that] evil is a result of the failure of social institutions or the result of human ignorance but rarely that of the depravity of the human heart. Yet that is exactly what is the case with Saddam Hussein."
The Ninth District denies Pledge rehearing
On March 10, 9.6 million students in nine Western states must stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance because it calls the United States "one nation under God."
The full body of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday supported the June decision of a three-judge panel that called the pledge a government endorsement of religion. Under the previous 2-1 ruling, schools cannot require students to recite or hear the Pledge if it includes the words "under God." After heated public debate erupted regarding the decision, a Ninth Circuit judge proposed a vote to decide if an 11-member panel should rehear the case. Only nine of the court's 24 judges voted in favor of the rehearing motion.
The Washington Times reports that the court's one-page paper on Friday's decision includes no explanation or argument on why the case won't be reheard—but orders that further pleas for rehearing be rejected.
Circuit judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain wrote in a dissenting opinion paper that the case should have been reheard not to address the current controversy but because "it was wrong, very wrong."
"[A rehearing is needed because] Judge Goodwin and Judge Reinhardt misinterpret[ed] the Constitution and 40 years of Supreme Court precedent," O'Scannlain wrote. "That most people understand this makes the decision no less wrong … The Pledge of Allegiance is simply not 'a religious act.' Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance cannot possibly be an 'establishment of religion' under any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution."
In addition to the vote, the court also released an amended version of the court's June opinion. In the original case, the two-person majority not only ruled that teachers shouldn't lead the pledge in classrooms but also said. 1954's federal law putting "under God" in the pledge was unconstitutional. The amended opinion doesn't address the constitutionality of the 1954 law, sticking only to whether teachers should lead students in the pledge.
After Friday's ruling, observers now expect the Supreme Court to stop the Pledge ban. The district-wide ban of school-sponsored reading of the Pledge will take effect on March 10 unless an appellate court or the Supreme Court does not act.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has already hinted that the administration will recommend the high court hear the case. "The Justice Department will spare no effort to preserve the rights of all our citizens to pledge allegiance to the American flag," he said. "We will defend the ability of Americans to declare their patriotism through the time-honored tradition of voluntarily reciting the Pledge."
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Suggest links and stories by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
See our past Weblog updates:
and more, back to November 1999
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more