George W. Bush is a religious fanatic hell-bent on imposing his view of God’s will on the world. At least, that’s what some journalists and academics would have us believe, including University of Washington Professor David Domke (“With God as his co-pilot,” Aug. 22).
Domke concedes that other presidents have invoked “civil religion” in speeches but he claims Bush “is doing something altogether different.” In support of this claim, Domke quotes President Bush saying such things as “the liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”
Domke should do more reading in American political history. The idea that liberty is God’s gift to humanity is hardly peculiar to Bush. Indeed, it’s one of the oldest themes in American political rhetoric. It was deist Thomas Jefferson, not evangelical Bush, who declared “the God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time” and who insisted that the “only firm basis” of civil liberties was the “conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God.” It was Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy, not Bush, who declared in his inaugural address “that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Yet Domke insists “Bush is the most publicly religious president since at least Woodrow Wilson.” Domke must have missed the Carter years. During the 1976 presidential election campaign, Jimmy Carter frequently told audiences that “the most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ.” At the 1976 Democratic Convention, a clergyman supporting Carter declared, “Surely the Lord sent Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back where she belongs!”
Bush’s statements are positively mild-mannered compared with such appeals. His public invocations of religion fall well within the mainstream American political tradition.
Why, then, are academics and journalists raising this non-issue? One reason may be ignorance.
For all their talk about diversity, newsrooms and academia are two of the least diverse places in America when it comes to religion. Surveys show that journalists and academics are far less likely to attend church than most Americans. That may make it easier for them to fall for (and spread) stereotypes of religious people as scary Bible-thumpers who want to impose a theocracy. Bigoted appeals that wouldn’t be tolerated in stories about gays or women or blacks routinely slip into stories about conservative Christians.
There also is a strong element of hypocrisy in the attack on Bush. Political observers who couldn’t have cared less about President Clinton’s speeches to African American churches or his frequent use of Biblical imagery in his speeches suddenly decry Bush’s rhetoric as one step away from the Taliban. Their criticism smacks of a cynical attempt to gain a cheap political advantage by inspiring unfounded fears about Bush rather than a genuine concern about the proper role of religion in politics.
There are many issues worth debating about Bush’s record, but his conventional use of religious rhetoric isn’t one of them. Those who try to make it so expose their own limited grasp of the political tradition and would deprive the public square of some of its most important contributors. Americans who favor religious liberty should applaud when a candidate for public office, particularly one as important as the Oval Office, articulates how faith affects his public policy views.
John G. West is chairman of the Department of Political Science at Seattle Pacific University and senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. He is also co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics.