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God and Governing

From the December 17, 2003 Wall Street Journal: What George W. Bush's faith means to his presidency.

11:00 PM, Dec 21, 2003 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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AMONG THE MANY FAULTS charged against George W. Bush it is probably his conservative Christian faith that most troubles the people who dislike him--or most infuriates the people who hate him. Kevin Phillips has gone so far as to argue that Bush has reshaped the Republican party into a coalition "unprecedentedly grouped around and influenced by Southern evangelical and fundamentalist voters and their wackier leaders." This is one of those truisms that is routinely heard at Blue State cocktail parties.

But what exactly is Bush's religious belief and is there any way it can be explained without worrying Kevin Phillips even more? In "The Faith of George W. Bush" (Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Penguin, 200 pages, $19.99), Stephen Mansfield relates, with obvious sympathy, a story of spiritual awakening whose outline is well-known to Mr. Bush's friends and enemies alike.

Bush grew up in mainline Protestant churches in Texas: Midland (Presbyterian) and Houston (Episcopal). Graduating from Yale, he returned to Houston, where he "listlessly worked a variety of jobs," reserving his energies "for women, parties and boisterous games of water volleyball." Several years later, working in Midland as an oil-company executive, he married Laura Welch. She took him to her Methodist church.

Should we worry about President Bush's religion? What about the Founders'?

But Bush still felt a lack of purpose in his life--and began asking questions. In 1985, a remark of Billy Graham's, made during a Bush family gathering, sparked a change. Bush decided, as he put it in his autobiography, to "recommit my heart to Jesus Christ. I was humbled to learn that God sent His Son to die for a sinner like me." He started reading the Bible and joined a Bible-study group. Most dramatically, the day after a soggy celebration of his 40th birthday, in 1986, he quit drinking.

Mansfield writes believably that, because of his faith, Bush is a "better man." And he is right to say that Bush's faith helps us to understand his presidency. But Mansfield goes much too far when he writes approvingly of the "religious renovation" of government. Phrases like that would seem to confirm the worst fears of someone like Kevin Phillips. But Bush has never proposed any such renovation. Indeed, he took an oath to execute his office and defend the Constitution.

Carrying out that oath, Bush, like past presidents, must naturally, at times, consider the role of religion in public life. But here Mansfield's book is thin. He doesn't mention the Justice Department's filings in the Cleveland school-choice case of 2001, defending the use of vouchers at religious schools. Nor does he discuss the administration's argument (made earlier this month in the Supreme Court) on behalf of a college student who was denied a state grant because he planned to major in theology. And Mansfield's discussion of the president's "faith-based initiative"--government-funded social services that include church-sponsored programs--is superficial. He fails to grasp the principle behind the initiative's defense of "charitable choice": Religious charities applying for social-service grants shouldn't be discriminated against simply because they are religious.

Bush's commitment to human rights abroad--trying to stop sex trafficking, for example, or fighting AIDS--may derive from his religious conviction. But Mansfield doesn't mention them. And on the big story of the Bush presidency--the war on terrorism--Mansfield gets it half right. He grasps that the president draws on his faith to frame the war in moral terms--the word "evil" is not exactly a secular word. But he neglects to note that behind Bush's foreign policy is, among other things, a desire to spread religious liberty to countries where there has long been none.

SUCH AN IMPULSE is very American. As Alf Mapp Jr. makes clear in "The Faiths of Our Fathers" (Rowman & Littlefield, 184 pages, $24.95), the Founders were dedicated to the cause of religious freedom. And little wonder, when one considers the variety of their affiliations. Among the 11 figures that Mapp discusses--including Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Alexander Hamilton, George Mason, Charles Carroll, Haym Solomon--one may find deists, Anglicans, a Catholic, a Jew and even a Unitarian.

If the Founders were neither atheists nor fundamentalists, neither were they co-religionists. Thus America became the first nation to disestablish religion and to protect the free exercise of religion by law. It is this political tradition, duly informed by religion, that Bush draws upon in his own governing, for instance when he welcomes people of faiths different from his own, or of no faith at all.

Bush hasn't used the word "evangelical" to describe his religious convictions, but in some ways it fits. Evangelicalism has a focus on conversion that can be traced back to the Great Awakening--the revivals that began in New England in the 1740s and spread down through the Middle Colonies and the South. The preachers at these revivals (and at later ones) stressed the importance of a "new birth," i.e., a commitment to Christ. The great New England theologian Jonathan Edwards called it a new "sense of the heart."

For almost two centuries, such Protestantism did much to shape the American character. But it lost its unified force in the 1920s, when various forms of theological liberalism captured the mainline churches. Evangelicalism re-emerged in the 1950s and has since assumed a higher profile in American society. Billy Graham, whom the president heard that day at a family gathering, has been its leading figure.

So it is that you may draw a line in American history from the Great Awakening to that day four years ago when candidate George W. Bush, asked by a reporter to name his favorite philosopher, replied, "Christ, because he changed my heart." Bush did not say that Christ was his favorite political adviser. Ye who live in Blue States, please take note.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.