The Magazine

God and Man in the Oval Office

From the March 17, 2003 issue: Contrary to what his critics say, Bush's religion is in the American mainstream.

Mar 17, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 26 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

MICHAEL GERSON, the chief White House speechwriter, was recently asked by a reporter if he understood how the windup to President Bush's State of the Union address in January might have offended some people. Gerson was stunned. What Bush had said was: "The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity." Clearly, the line was not a reference to any particular religion, but a humble admission that human rights are universal, as opposed to an invention of the United States. Gerson cited America's founding document, the Declaration of Independence, to the reporter, especially the part about mankind being "endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights."

The incident is noteworthy because it touches on the notion that Bush injects too much of his Christian faith into his public pronouncements. On top of that, there's the related idea that the president, as an evangelical Christian, believes he was chosen by God to lead America into a war to depose Saddam Hussein and liberate Iraq. This is widely believed in Europe and even among some of Bush's American critics. The first idea is arguable at best, the second absurd.

For sure, Bush is a serious believer. When Brit Hume of Fox News Channel asked him in a 2001 interview if he'd be willing to talk about faith, Bush eagerly agreed and said the subject was important. He told Hume he reads the Bible every morning and prays often during the day, sometimes at his desk in the Oval Office. In 1999, I had a similar experience when I interviewed Bush, then governor of Texas, about his faith. He started talking about it before I asked my first question.

Bush is hardly the first president to invoke God in his speeches. "In how he speaks of God," wrote Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, "Bush is much more typically presidential than he is painted, especially by our friends abroad." Dionne mentioned President Clinton's frequent citations of Scripture. More striking is President Roosevelt's State of the Union speech in 1942. Victory over Hitler's Germany "means victory for religion," he said. The Nazis "could not tolerate that. The world is too small to provide adequate 'living room' for both Hitler and God." That goes well beyond anything Bush has said about God and Saddam Hussein. At most, he's called Saddam "evil," which is not necessarily a religious word but still upsets relativists and many Europeans.

The story of Bush's born-again experience at age 40 is an oft-told tale. And it's told again in the March 10 Newsweek in a vivid and fair-minded article by Howard Fineman. There's a difference about Bush and his faith. In his case, it's clear that his references to God are not just talking points. He's an authentic believer.

But does the president think God is behind his foreign policy or any other policy? Yes, according to religion professor Martin E. Marty, writing in the same issue of Newsweek. "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.

Another complaint is that Bush devotes too much time to evangelical groups. Within days in February, he appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast and spoke to the National Religious Broadcasters. The annual prayer breakfast was begun at the behest of President Eisenhower and has been attended by every president, every year, for decades. Republican presidents, including Bush's father and President Reagan, have frequently addressed the broadcasters. In his NRB speech this year, Bush praised religious diversity and urged wealthy suburban churches to aid poor inner-city congregations.

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.

At the memorial service for the seven Columbia astronauts, Bush spoke directly to their grieving families. "The sorrow is lonely," he said, "but you are not alone. In time, you will find comfort and the grace to see you through. And in God's own time, we can pray that the day of your reunion will come." Later, he told the broadcasters that the Columbia families "are finding strength and comfort because of your prayers and because of the Almighty God." Did he go overboard in mentioning God? I don't think so.

In his speech to the broadcasters, the president emphasized faith's life-changing power. Bush believes strongly in this, an aide says, for the simple reason that "it happened to him." Faith, he said, "defines some of the most effective social programs in America. It's that spirit of love and compassion which makes healing lives work."

Bush raised the theme of providence in his State of the Union address and returned to it in his nine-minute talk at the prayer breakfast. "We believe, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that men and women born to freedom in the image of God will not forever suffer the oppressor's sword," he said. "We can also be confident in the ways of Providence, even when they are far from our understanding." 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, as the reporter questioning Gerson was, 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.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.