George Bush has been called virtually every name in the book. One of the most frequent charges is that of religious fanaticism.
Let’s examine more closely the elements comprising this charge.
- Bush is said to have felt called by God to the presidency. This is the traditional religious language of calling or vocation and usually doesn’t mean that a little (or big) voice whispered (or shouted) anything in anyone’s ear. It amounts to a serene confidence that I am the right person for the job. A lot of people have this feeling about themselves.
- Bush prays for divine guidance regarding the decisions he has to make. Prayer implies above all else a recognition of human finitude and fallibility, as in “dear Lord, I hope I’m right about this!” You’d expect that a person who has a calling would pray about the challenges he faces. The mixture of confidence and humility this bespeaks comes pretty close to getting the human condition right: it’s our job to address the world’s ills, but not to play God.
- Bush uses the righteous language of moral absolutes, as in “axis of evil.” He’s in good company there. Abraham Lincoln once said, “if slavery isn’t evil, then nothing is evil.” Part of what we hope our leaders can do is call a spade a spade when it in fact is a spade, rather than retreating into semantic distinctions about what we mean by the word “is” or insisting (as do many of my pseudo-sophisticated freshmen) that “everything’s relative.”
- He thinks liberty is God’s gift to humanity. He’s in good company, right up there with that noted fanatic Thomas Jefferson, who made the immortal claim that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights.
- He tries to impose his religious values on us regarding matters like abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research. There are respectable secular arguments in support of the President’s position on all three of these issues. When he speaks on them, he’s quite careful to steer clear of explicitly religious language, relying instead on what Catholics call natural law, Reformed Protestants call common grace, or secular academic liberals call public reason. In other words, he appeals to our reason, not our faith.
- By supporting the faith-based initiative, he breaches the wall of separation. Pardon him for thinking that there might be room for experimentation in the delivery of social services to the needy. The point of the initiative is not publicly to support proselytizing, but to mobilize the armies of compassion and to offer folks choices among a variety of service providers. The initiative is all about results, not about religious coercion or endorsement. And the motivation behind the infamous co-religionist hiring exemption (found in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court, and embodied in the welfare reform legislation signed by President Clinton) is religious freedom, not discrimination.
The charges laid against the President reveal more about his opponents than they do about him. They’d be well advised to look for other grounds of criticism, because the only people they’re discrediting are themselves.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.