President Bush, Biblical Faith, and the Politics of Religion
A cartoon in a recent issue of Time magazine depicts President George W. Bush as a modern-day Moses on a mountain with two stone tablets in his hands. The tablets are labeled "The Tax Commandments," an allusion to Bush's proposal to eliminate tax on stock dividends. Ironically, this politically satirical image of Bush as a Mosaic figure leading his people out of bondage (tax bondage) and into the conquest of some promised land seems to reflect Bush's own self-understanding. In his autobiographical book, A Charge to Keep, Bush describes how the biblical story of Moses figures prominently in articulating his faith and how his religious convictions impact his political leadership. While attending a church service in Austin recognizing his re-election as governor of Texas (in 1998), Bush relates what is clearly a motivational "call story." He writes:
Pastor [Mark] Craig said that America is starved for honest leaders. He told the story of Moses, asked by God to lead his people to a land of milk and honey. Moses had a lot of reasons to shirk the task. As the Pastor told it, Moses' basic reaction was, `Sorry, God. I'm busy. I've got a family. I've got sheep to tend. I've got a life. Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt? ... Oh, my Lord, send, I pray some other person,' Moses pleaded. But God did not, and Moses ultimately did His bidding.... People are `starved for leadership,' Pastor Craig said, 'starved for leaders who have ethical and moral courage.... America needs leaders who have the moral courage to do what is right for the right reason. It's not always easy or convenient for leaders to step forward,' he acknowledged. 'Remember, even Moses had doubts.' 'He was talking to you,' my mother later said.'
As Bush recollects, this sermon "spoke directly to my heart and my life." And so it was that Bush took up Moses' mantle, as he saw it, and entered the Presidential race. As he said to James Robison, a Fort Worth televangelist, "I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for president."
The foundations for this Mosaic self-perception had been laid years before in 1986 when Bush experienced a new-found religious conviction following a weekend with Billy Graham. "That weekend my faith took on a new meaning. It was the beginning of a new walk where I would commit my heart to Jesus Christ." Bush responded by starting to attend a weekly men's Bible study group in Midland, Texas. "My interest in reading the Bible grew stronger and stronger, and the words became clearer and more meaningful. We studied Acts, the story of the Apostles building the Christian Church, and next year, the Gospel of Luke." Bush relates how he read the Bible regularly, reading the entire Bible through a series of one-year Bible readings, a private devotion he maintained every other year, while during the in between years he picked different chapters to study and pray over. From his conversations with Billy Graham, to his regular Bible study, to his Moses-like call experience, such is Bush's revealing self-narrative.
Bush apparently continues his Bible study in somewhat of a para-church setting not unlike the para-church setting of the men's Bible study he experienced in Midland, Texas (a Bible study group that replaced Monday Night Football!). The quasi-church setting now resides in the White House as Bush has surrounded himself with people he admires as men of faith-including Attorney General John Ashcroft and head speechwriter Michael Gerson (a graduate of the evangelical Wheaton College). When another speechwriter, David Frum (a self-described Canadian Jewish intellectual, who contributed the famous "axis of evil" line to Bush's 2002 State of the Union Address) joined the White House staff, the first words he heard in the Bush White House were: "Missed you at Bible study." The blend of Bible-based faith and conservative politics that branded Bush's terms as Governor of Texas had clearly moved into the White House. At the beginning of his second term as Governor of Texas, Bush informed his staff that the slogan for his second term would be "a charge to keep because we serve One greater than any of us." This "charge to keep" has segued relatively seamlessly from the self-understanding and mission of Governor Bush to the self-understanding and now national mission of President Bush.
We have had other "religious" presidents, from the Sunday school teaching Jimmy Carter, to Ronald Reagan's famous courting of the religious right, to Bill Clinton's Baptist roots. But no other President has so clearly perceived his calling in such epic biblical terms. The Moses imagery is not accidental. Nor was Bush's declaration of a "Jesus Day" while governor of Texas (June 10, 2000); nor his designation of Jesus as the political philosopher he most admires; nor his commitment to government support of faith-based social services (including Charles Colson's prison ministry).
While Bush encourages a more fluid border between Church and State, as in his faith-based initiatives, his rhetoric also suggests a sense of mission to spreading American-styled liberty to the rest of the world. As Bush put it in his 2003 State of the Union Address, the freedom we enjoy as Americans is "God's gift to every human being in the world," a phrase he has repeated in several contexts. Indeed, the mixing of a Mosaic self-understanding with his confidence that "the true strength of America lies in the fact that we are a faithful America by and large," suggests that President Bush sees America as a kind of new Israel called by God to be God's people on the international stage.
For Bush, God has blessed and chosen America to carry out its responsibility to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty. Such rhetoric provides a clear motivation for the invasion of Iraq-to liberate the Iraqi people while at the same time bring to justice Saddam Hussein and his regime of evildoers. This basic sensibility of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty is a driving force behind much of Bush's perception of what it means to be a responsible President. This is why, for example, he opposes abortion but defends the death penalty. Says Bush, "I believe that it is important to focus on the innocent victim when it comes to crime. If the death penalty is administered surely, swiftly and justly, it will save lives because people will know that there is going to be a consequence to crime." This is in keeping with Bush's conviction that "what this country needs to do is to usher in what I call `the responsibility era.'" This is especially the case for Christians. Bush has a clear view of divine punishment that awaits those Christians who do not live up to the responsibilities of their faith: "I am mindful of that Biblical admonition that if you accept Christ and then stray, the consequences are more severe than ever." The motif of Moses laying down clear cut choices with very clear consequences can also be found in Bush's June 2002 speech on Israel and a Palestinian state, at the end of which he cites the famous charge from Deuteronomy 30:19, "The Bible says, 'I have set before you life and death; therefore, choose life.'"
In President Bush's view, some people simply deserve the wrathful judgment of God, and if God chooses to use him as the vehicle of punishment (God's "terrible swift sword"), so be it, whether for death row inmates in Texas or for governments such as Iraq that defy United Nations resolutions. Bush's conservative religious convictions lean heavily toward such a dualistic approach to the world: white hats on one side, wanted posters on the other, with little doubt as to who's on which side of divine truth and justice. As President Bush stated while he was the Governor of Texas, "I could not be governor if I did not believe in a divine plan that supercedes all human plans." Bush seems to believe that he is simply governing in accord with the divine plan. The danger, of course, is well articulated by Martin Marty's Newsweek essay on "The Sin of Pride." As Marty puts it: "Few doubt that Mr. Bush is sincere in his faith. The problem is with the president's evident conviction that he's doing God's will."
This infusion of President Bush's faith convictions into his politics produces a tone of moral certitude (some would say condescension) in his rhetoric. The moralizing character of Bush's statements can be nicely illustrated by looking at what appears to be one of his favorite biblical passages, at least one that he often cites (from Matthew 7:3-5): "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" As Bush says, "the more I got into the Bible, the more that admonition 'Don't try to take a speck out of your neighbor's eye when you've got a log in your own' becomes more and more true, particularly for those of us in public life. And so my style, my focus, and many of the issues that I talk about, you know, are reinforced by my religion." On the one hand, appeal to this passage is another way for Bush to talk about his own shortcomings, his own sinfulness and humility. On the other hand, however, Bush appears to believe that through his redemption in Christ he has become aware of the log in his own eye, and now has a clear vision of what is morally right and wrong, both personally and as the leader of the free world. Indeed, the evangelical context that helped to form Bush's religious world is one that leans in the direction of moralistic dualism: righteous nation vs. evil axis. His worldview is not one that admits of or even tolerates much moral ambiguity. As Richard Brookhiser has recently put it, for Bush "there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey."
Let me close with two final notes on President Bush and the Bible. First, it is significant, I would argue, that Bush studied the Book of Acts during the seminal time of his new-found faith conviction. The Book of Acts presents the inevitable and divinely guided triumphal flourishing of the early Christian church. The church in Acts experienced significant persecution and occasional martyrdoms, but God was faithful and nurtured the church from one glory to another. I wonder if in some way Bush does not see the Acts of the Apostles as a type of grid for understanding the rise and flourishing of America, not that it is a road map per se, but a guide to perseverance in the face of opposition both from without and from within. In that context the conversion/call story of the Apostle Paul has also been important for President Bush. As noted by Tony Carnes, "For years, Bush has been struck by how the apostle Paul received his own call from Jesus on the road to Damascus." Does George W. Bush see himself as a kind of Presidential Paul-zealously certain of his convictions even in the midst of adversity, patiently striving to bring about the kind of moral world he unflinchingly believes to be part of God's plan? When one examines the religious imagery (if not imagination) that seems to empower and motivate President Bush-especially the calls of Moses and Paul, combined with a moralizing understanding of Jesus-it suggests that Bush's vision of his Presidency and consequently of public policy (both domestic and foreign) is far more influenced by his religious convictions than any President of recent memory.
This kind of moralizing focus in Bush's faith contributes directly to his self-understanding as one called by God as a new Moses to both proclaim and bring about the gospel of American liberty to the world at large. And ever since 9/11 Bush's sense of call and divine mandate has only been radicalized and intensified (some would say apocalypticized). With the US military he seems to be convinced that he is wielding the punishing retribution of God's own army upon the evil enemy.
Second, in his September 11, 2002 speech commemorating the anniversary of the terrible events of what has simply come to be called 9/11, President Bush made what must be considered his most disturbing use of biblical imagery to date. Borrowing imagery from the prologue of John 1 the President concluded his speech with the following words: "This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind... That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it." In this paraphrase from John 1:4-5 President Bush replaces the incarnate Word of God (Jesus) with America as the light of the world. In one simple step Bush moves from nationalism to idolatry, envisioning America as the Word made flesh, America as the one sent by God into the world. That such language suggesting the divinization of America can come from the lips of a sitting President, and one who claims the Lordship of Jesus at that, is nothing short of astonishing. But the language of oppositions, good/evil, light/dark...cuts both ways. There are Christians who worry about the President's invocation of such religious rhetoric in the service of nationalistic fervor. They are aware that elsewhere in the Gospel of John (John 9) those who thought they stood in the light are in fact found to be in darkness.
Jeffrey Siker is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University and is a member of SBL.
Citation: Jeffrey S. Siker, " President Bush, Biblical Faith, and the Politics of Religion," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2006]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=151