Bush and God. (Comment)

Article excerpt

Not since Jimmy Carter's confession that he had lusted in his heart after women other than his wife have Americans been so interested in the religious life of the man occupying the Oval Office. While pursuing the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, George W. Bush declared that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. During his news conference just before the full deployment of troops to Iraq, Bush allowed that he relied daily on the prayers of Americans. Howard Fineman's cover story in Newsweek just a few days earlier gushed that the Bush presidency was the "most resolutely `faith-based' in modern times." Had Fineman never heard of the thirty-ninth President, who is also the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

The differences between the two men, Presidents Carter and Bush, are instructive. Just as Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural acknowledged that both sides in the Civil War, Union and Confederate, read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, so too are Carter and Bush evangelical Christians who read the same Bible. But Bush's God is the eye-for-an-eye God of the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, the God of vengeance and retribution, whereas Carter's God is the Jesus of the New Testament, the revolutionary who declared "blessed are the peacemakers" and enjoined his followers to turn the other cheek.

The theological distinctions between Carter and Bush go well beyond the tired categories of theological liberalism and conservativism. In reaction to twentieth-century liberal nostrums about human goodness, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr formulated his "theology of crisis," which, in the face of the atrocities of Nazism in World War II, demanded that people of faith abandon their quaint naivete about human progress and unite to resist evil--by force, if necessary.

Carter spoke often about his indebtedness to Niebuhrian theology, but his religious convictions about fairness and decency also compelled him to reconfigure the Panama Canal treaty (thereby expending considerable political capital early in his term) and to lure Israel's Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, ancient and implacable enemies, to the peace table. Bush's understanding of the faith, on the other hand, tends toward a dualistic view of the world, the titanic and unambiguous struggle between the forces of righteousness allied against the "axis of evil." Whereas Carter famously agonized about deploying military force in an attempt to rescue the hostages held at the American Embassy in Iran, Bush appears to have suffered little compunction about unleashing American troops and weapons of mass destruction against Iraq. …