The Magazine

Just the Right Amount of God

From the January 31, 2005 issue: George Bush delivers the most philosophical inaugural address ever.

Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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"WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE political philosopher?" a group of Republican candidates were asked early in the 2000 race for president. And the frontrunner at the time, a Texas governor named George W. Bush, calmly answered, "Christ, because he changed my life."

Well. You could barely hear the other candidates' answers in the crash and clatter of overturned chairs as reporters scrambled to reach the phones and call in the story. Some commentators decided Bush was nakedly pandering to Evangelical voters in a Machiavellian ploy so bold that he should have said his favorite political philosopher was, um, Machiavelli.

Most of the nation's chatterers, however, decided that this wasn't the devious Bush but the stupid Bush. Couldn't he come up with the name of an actual philosopher? Plato had a scribble called the Republic, Aristotle managed to jot down a few notes on politics, and in the long years since the ancient Greeks there have been a few other philosophical types who've set out a thought or two on the political order. A little more study time--a little less fraternizing with his drinking buddies--and Bush might have heard their names while he was an undergraduate, even at Yale.

And then there was the mockery the candidate faced for his confusion of piety with philosophy. The holy name of Jesus doesn't have much purchase on people for whom "Christian" is mostly shorthand for "life-denying bigots who want to burn all the books they're too ignorant to read." Besides, from Genesis to Revelation, the Bible that Bush claims to follow manifests deep suspicion of the philosophical. The Lord will do "a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder," as the prophet Isaiah put it, "for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid." If Bush understood the Book of Acts, he'd remember the Apostle Paul didn't have much success preaching the Resurrection to philosophers in Athens.

Bad theology, bad philosophy, and bad politics--this was the high-minded consensus at the time. The identification of Jesus as a life-changing political philosopher was either a stroke of electoral genius, or a mark of jaw-dropping feeblemindedness, or--well, that's always been the problem for Bush's opponents, hasn't it? "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot," John Kerry whined to his aides during the 2004 campaign, and George W. Bush still remains impenetrable to those who persist in seeing him as some impossible combination of Dr. Evil and Forrest Gump. Anyway, the consensus was that he didn't mean--couldn't mean--anything philosophical by his answer to a reporter's question.

Funny thing. On a cold, bright day in January 2005, with the sun off the snow crinkling his eyes, President Bush gave his second inaugural address. And it seems he did actually mean what he had said before. The speech was as clear an assertion of a particular Christian political philosophy as we're likely to hear in these latter days. "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom," the president declared. "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."

There's even a name for this kind of theistical philosophy. It's called natural law. An inaugural address, by its very national purpose, walks the tightrope between powerful abstractions and empty platitudes, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. "In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak," Bush said, and is that a truth or a truism? A wrenching call to greatness or a self-congratulatory pat on the back?

A little of both, no doubt. But the most interesting things in Bush's inaugural rhetoric are the moments where justifications are offered for the various truths and truisms. The chain of explanation in his speech is always the logical progression of the natural-law argument. "Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals," Bush insisted. And why? Because there is, in fact, a universal human nature: "Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul." If "across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government," the reason must reside in the enduring essence of human beings as simultaneously corruptible and morally valuable: "Because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave."