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Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The Rev. George W. Bush.

What exactly does President Bush's religious rhetoric mean? He clearly believes that God helped him stop drinking. He also embraces the old notion that God has a providential purpose for the United States. (What president hasn't?) But David Gergen tells Laurie Goodstein that Bush "has made it clear he feels that Providence intervened to change his life, and now he is somehow an instrument of Providence." God bless America, sure, but God bless Bush's agenda? Come on.

As William Saletan wrote about Bush's "God-talk" in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, the president sometimes talks as if God watches over us but lets us choose our own fate, while at other times he talks as if God actively chooses sides in human affairs. There's a significant difference between the two:

Look back at Bush's speeches after Sept. 11 and you'll see him wrestling with these two ideas of God. On the day of the attacks he spoke of a God who watches over us in a passive sense: "I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve. . . . I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us." But nine days later, Bush invoked a God who would "watch over the United States" in an active sense: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

It's reassuring to think that God will protect us from tragedy or defeat. But that belief has two dangerous implications. One is that courage is unnecessary and unreal. The crews of Challenger and Columbia weren't actually taking risks or showing bravery, as Reagan and Bush supposed, because their fate was in God's hands. The other implication is that tragedies are God's will. That's what Bush rebuked Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for suggesting when they speculated that Sept. 11 had happened because God had removed his protection from the United States.

Apart from theological inconsistency, what else is going on here? I'm not opposed to religious rhetoric in the public square. Many people express their most basic values in religious language, and asking people not to bring their religiosity into civic life is really asking them not to take politics seriously. But just because someone says he really, really believes something doesn't make it true. It should never insulate a person from criticism.

And that's the basic problem with Bush's insistence that God has chosen sides. Bush gets that sincerish catch in his voice, his eyes dew a bit, and he talks about the goodness of America, and while I don't want to be churlish, I think his God-talk is frankly blasphemous. He is blessing his own policies in an attempt to end the conversation; he has the pulpit, his administration is doing God's will, and he wants the congregation not to ask questions.

Politics in God's name always poses a danger. Call it idolatry, hubris, megalomania — it comes down to the danger of mistaking your own purpose for God's purpose, and forgetting that there will always be a gap between them.

President Bush's Christianity strikes me as a species of "all about me" theology: God saved me, God loves me, and God endorses my desires. But Bush is forgetting something. God's love is a promise to the penitent, not the arrogant. The president only invokes God's manifest destiny for the United States. He ignores what the Bible actually teaches: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" It's the humbly part that is most notably lacking in Bush's religious rhetoric.

Liberal theologian James Luther Adams is famous for saying, "An unexamined faith is not worth having." This is too coy. Bush's Christianity is a free pass; it involves no self-criticism, no repentance, no humility. His unexamined faith is dangerous to us all.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 11 February 2003 at 8:27 AM

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