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Bush's Faith in Liberty

A close reading of what the president believes.

8:45 AM, Jan 21, 2005 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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"We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as he wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our founders declared a new order of the ages, when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner of 'Freedom Now'--they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of liberty."

THIS REMARKABLE PARAGRAPH came toward the end of President Bush's Second Inaugural. It's worth a closer look.

The subject of the paragraph is history, and Bush offers a certain view of it. History has a direction, one "set by liberty." This direction is "visible"--meaning we can see it in events themselves. (Thus does Bush point to signal events in our history.) The movement toward freedom is not a straight line, however. It has "an ebb and flow," meaning there are setbacks. But liberty will eventually triumph. And we can be completely confident that it will, not because such an outcome is preordained, but because human beings make choices that "move events," and the choices that human beings everywhere ultimately make will favor liberty. But why be so confident about that? Because freedom is "the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul." Or, as Bush said in his First Inaugural, "it is the inborn hope of humanity."

For man to choose against freedom, Bush seems to imply, is for man to choose against what he is constituted to be. For Bush, it seems, man's direction is set by the way he is, by the hope of liberty within--a hope that is planted by none other than the Author of Liberty. Ecclesiastes says that eternity is set in the hearts of men. So, too, Bush says, is liberty.

"The Author of Liberty" was the second reference to God in the paragraph. The sentence containing the first cautions us against thinking that freedom will surely triumph because we regard ourselves as a "chosen nation," i.e., one chosen for (in the context here) the work of advancing freedom in the world. Indeed, the statement "God moves and chooses as He wills" suggests that God may use other nations to effect liberty's eventual triumph.

But does that mean that Bush believes God has never used America in that way? Hardly. Might Bush reject the notion of America as a chosen nation, a New Israel in special relationship to God, but at the same time embrace the notion that God works through nations, including America, to bring about his purposes, including the triumph of human liberty (if indeed that is one of his purposes)? The answer is clearly yes, especially on the evidence of this speech. And might Bush think that America, more than any other nation today, is being used by God for that purpose? So it seems, not just on the evidence of this speech but all of Bush's rhetoric. Note this from the First Inaugural: "If our country does not lead the cause of freedom, it will not be lead"--and connect the dots.

The key point is that Bush believes in providence. Few national Democrats share that same belief, though until recent decades most adhered to it. To many Democrats, the idea that God is actively at work in the world, and that He works through nations including the United States, indeed centrally through the United States, to bring about his will--all of that seems a bit old-fashioned, not to say hopelessly naive.

Here is a difference between Bush and most Democrats. It's a difference as sharp as any other, and it's not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.