Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



A Certain Presidency  
by Andrew M. Manis

Religion was the October surprise of the 2004 election. In the month before “moral values” emerged as the number one issue in the exit polls, major newspapers began analyzing, and TV personalities began talking their heads off about, religion and the campaign. And the religion that was most on the media’s minds was the president’s.

On the October 15 edition of MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” for example, pundit Lawrence O’Donnell dismissed President Bush’s faith as simpleminded. “You got a problem with a president praying to God for wisdom?” guest host Pat Buchanan asked him three nights later. On October 25, Larry King’s panel of experts devoted half an hour to “God and the Presidency.”

In my personal neck of the woods, the October 18 Macon Telegraph published a letter lauding the president as a born-again Christian “who consults his Lord…before making decisions,” while another citizen told a reporter, “George Bush did what God wanted him to do. Who cares what the rest of the world thinks?”

Meanwhile, the rest of the world took note, and the Washington Post took note of the rest of the world taking note. In Mexico, the Post reported October 26, El Diario trembled at an American president “who seems to claim divine inspiration.” A Toronto Sun columnist expressed the opinion that Bush was too influenced by ignorant rural Southerners who “reject evolution and think French is the native language of Satan.”

Not that interest in George W. Bush and religion was something new under the sun. On the eve of the election, Google searches of “Bush + religion” garnered 3.5 million hits. (“Bush + faith” got 2.7 million; “Bush + Catholics,” 1.3 million; and “Bush + Evangelicals,” 71,600.)

In a rather more restricted sample of some 50 major pieces devoted to the subject, I found two spikes of attention: just before the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003 (seven) and in the weeks following the Republican National Convention (20). Both were periods when the president had frequent recourse to religious and quasi-religious rhetoric—a fact registered by many of the stories.

Notwithstanding conventional conservative convictions that the mainstream media are afflicted with liberal and secular bias, I found treatment of the president’s religion respectfully evenhanded. Most stories were heavy on the biographical, emphasizing both the apparent sincerity of Bush’s conversion and his developing friendships with evangelical preachers in Texas.

Among the more noteworthy efforts was the package featured in the March 10, 2003 issue of Newsweek that had “Bush and God” on the cover. Political reporter Howard Fineman’s lead article traced the president’s faith development, while longtime religion writer Kenneth Woodward surveyed the history of America’s civil religion. Both pieces concluded with cautionary notes about a “messianic mission” (Fineman) and “the presumption that God is on our side” (Woodward).

            Liberal commentary was, not surprisingly, more biting. Assailing Bush’s “messianic militarism” in the February 2003 issue of The Progressive, editor Matthew Rothschild quoted former Bush speechwriter David Frum’s comment, “War has made him a crusader after all.” Writing in the April 12, 2004 Los Angeles Times, Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, argued that Bush’s use of the “bully pulpit” had aggressively “favor[ed] the most conservative religious elements.” Shrillest of all was Bob Fitrakis’ September 1, 2004, [Columbus, Ohio] Free Press article comparing Bush’s God-talk to Hitler’s.

Conservative journalists, of course, hastened to defend the president. “Bush’s Gospel,” Terry Eastland’s analysis in the March 1, 2004 issue of the Weekly Standard, made out a persuasive case that, beginning with his use of the Good Samaritan story in his 2001 inaugural address, Bush had put in place no less than a “love-thy-neighbor presidency.” The best evidence for this came, domestically, from his faith-based initiatives and, in foreign policy, from his belief in the “transformational power of liberty” in the Middle East.

Last September, the conservative online news service ran a piece by Paul Kengor showing that in his public utterances Bush actually referred to the Bible, religion, and Jesus less often than his predecessor Bill Clinton. Accusing journalists of maintaining a double standard for Republicans and Democrats, Kengor pointed out that when Rep. Dick Gephardt said he thought “Jesus was a Democrat,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd had not accused him of “playing the Jesus card.”

Touché, one would think. Yet what of the suggestion of’s Steven Waldman and the Dallas Morning News’ Wayne Slater that Republicans merited greater scrutiny because of their theocratic impulses? Speaking on “The Jesus Factor,” a very evenhanded exploration by PBS’s “Frontline” that aired April 29, 2004, Waldman reasoned that “when people who don’t like Bush listen to his religious rhetoric, they’re not just hearing the words, they’re seeing a whole landscape of other conservative evangelicals—of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Bible thumpers, discrimination against gays, a whole set of issues…but which comprise the world of the religious right….So people view Bush’s religiosity not just as a spiritual matter, but as a political matter.”

At his father’s funeral in June, Ron Reagan raised eyebrows by suggesting that unlike “some politicians,” Reagan had not used religion for political gain. This dubious claim, forgivable in a son eulogizing his father, seemed a not-so-veiled criticism of the president. The new trope was picked up the following month at the Democratic National Convention when John Kerry allowed as how he, like President Reagan, did not “wear his religion on his sleeve,” but that his faith was real nonetheless.

On the other side, New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, speaking at the Republican National Convention in August, both gave credit to God for putting George W. Bush in the White House. Along the same lines, the Convention premiered a television documentary by conservative Grizzly Adams Productions of Denver entitled, “George W. Bush: Faith in the White House.”

Yet even as the frequency of such news items picked up, most journalistic accounts of the president’s religion remained biographical and explanatory. There seemed little doubt that Bush had actually undergone a conversion from profligate Episcopalian frat boy to disciplined Methodist teetotaler with an evangelical “charge to keep” in the public square.

In the mid-1980s, when alcohol nearly cost him his marriage, Bush was born again through the ministries of evangelists Arthur Blessitt and Billy Graham. In classic style, he forsook “demon rum” and joined the Community Bible Study of Midland, Texas. Developing habits of “daily quiet time,” he proceeded to read through the Bible every other year.

Evangelicals love nothing more than a prominent convert, especially one disciplined in Bible study and prayer. But Bush also made enough connnections to prove useful to his father’s 1988 presidential campaign as liaison to the religious right.

His ability to walk the evangelical walk impressed Assemblies of God minister Doug Wead, who befriended Bush and coached him on how to connect with evangelicals more effectively. “Signal early and signal often,” was Wead’s advice. A famous early—and possibly even unplanned—signal was his now famous naming of Christ as his favorite philosopher (“because he changed my heart”) during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Typical of evangelical preachers, Bush’s 2001 inaugural address expounded three alliterated points of courage, compassion, and character. He also transformed the stock benediction of presidential speeches to “May God continue to bless America,” underscoring the central civil religious belief that God has blessed America in a special way.

On the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Bush spoke at Ellis Island of a God-given freedom that America was called to defend. “Our generation has now heard history’s call,” declared the president, “and we will answer it.” He continued, “The hope of all mankind still lights our way,” and, borrowing from the Gospel of John, added, “And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.” A nice rhetorical flourish for the uninitiated, but for the Bible-reading public it was another signal that this was a president who spoke their language.

Similarly, Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address rallied “the compassion of America” to tackle poverty, homelessness, and addiction on the premise that “there is power—wonder-working power—in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” In a popular evangelical hymn, “wonder-working power” refers to “power in the blood” of Jesus to forgive sin. While this went right by uninitiated secular Americans, his religious base took note.

There is no question that the signals got through. Southern Baptist Convention official Richard Land told “Frontline” that everywhere he went his fellow Baptists would implore him to relay their support and prayers to the president. “I’ve never seen an outpouring quite like it,” Land said.

In informing his evangelical base that he was one of them, Bush’s rhetoric sent the theological message that American ideals and action are one with the power of Christ and his work in the world. Speaking at Washington’s National Cathedral three days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush asserted that America’s “responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

Six days later he told Congress that all nations had a decision to make: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Any nation harboring or supporting terrorism would be regarded an enemy of the United States. America’s enemies were the enemies of freedom, whose advance “now depends on us.” There was no question in the president’s mind that God was on our side. “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war,” he said, “and we know that God is not neutral between them.”

Bush seemed to be convinced that he, no less than America, was God’s special instrument. Before 9/11 he told prominent evangelical leaders like Land and the evangelist James Robison that he believed God wanted him to run for president. In the June 26, 2003 issue of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Arnon Regular reported that Bush had informed the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, “God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.”

In a stunning article in the October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine, free-lance writer Ron Suskind took aim at this faith-based certainty of God’s will. Suskind, who had written former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill’s story in The Price of Loyalty, highlighted the assessment of Bruce Bartlett, a former official in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations, that the president was possessed of “this instinct he’s always talking about…this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.” Bush was so “clear-eyed” about al-Qaeda, Barlett said, “because he’s just like them.”

Suskind did tend to exaggerate the significance of evangelicals’ conviction that Bush was a “messenger from God.” One visit to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual Pastors’ Conference would have shown Suskind that every preacher on the program is introduced as “God’s man” or “a prophet of God.” It is wise not to take these compliments too literally.

But he did well to focus on the president’s certitude and growing intolerance of dissent, using as his prime witness for the prosecution Jim Wallis, the longtime voice of progressive evangelicalism. A prophetic civil religion, emerging from a humble penitence, could move Americans toward “something higher than ourselves,” Wallis said. By contrast, “when it is designed to certify our righteousness, that can be a dangerous thing.”

The effect of Bush’s religion, as conveyed in the news media, was to deepen the polarization of the country, and to persuade the rest of the world that America was indeed embarked on a species of religious crusade. Disagreement or dissent—domestic, foreign, or from within the administration itself—was not to be brooked, for if the Bush agenda was divinely mandated, opposition was not merely secular, it was against God’s will. National self-criticism seemed out of the question.

In an op-ed piece in the October 8, 2004 Charleston [W.V.] Gazette, retired Methodist bishop William Boyd Grove wrote, “President Bush has been unwilling to listen to the counsel of religious leaders unless he knows in advance that they agree with him.” Bush “has allowed his religious belief…to make him absolutely certain that he is right, and unwilling to listen to other voices. He is slow to admit a mistake on any issue of substance, because he believes his decisions are just and righteous.”

What that portends for a second Bush term is anyone’s guess.



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