Late in the summer, at the Republican national convention in New York, a movie billed as the conservative alternative to Fahrenheit 9/11 debuted for the party faithful. The film, George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, opens with a montage of a billowing American flag, a softly lit portrait of Jesus in Gethsemane, and a shot of the tawny profile of our 43rd president with his eyes gazing heavenward. Myriad times throughout the film Bush is referred to reverently as a man of faith.
Like no president in recent memory, George W. Bush wields his Christian righteousness like a flaming sword. Indeed, hundreds of news stories and nearly half a dozen books have evinced a White House that, according to BBC Washington correspondent Justin Webb, “hums to the sound of prayer.” Yet for the past four years the mainstream press has trod lightly, rarely venturing beyond the biographical to probe the depth, or sincerity, of Bush's Christian beliefs. Bush has no doubt benefited from the media's reluctance; Newsweek, for example, in the heat of the run-up to the Iraq War, ran a cover package on the president's faith under the headline “Bush and God” -- a story whose timing lent the war the aura of having heavenly sanction. Even lefty believers like Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, and Amy Sullivan, journalist and Democratic adviser, politely maintain that Bush's faith is strong, if misguided.
Indeed, in an 8,000-word lamentation appearing in The New York Times Magazine last weekend, Ron Suskind attempted to trace Bush's lack of intellectual curiosity, and the policy disasters that have stemmed from that, back to his relationship with God. “That a deep Christian faith illuminated the personal journey of George W. Bush is common knowledge,” Suskind wrote. In other words, the devil, as it were, is lurking among the articles of faith, but not in the heart of the man.
This is a huge mistake, because when judged by his deeds, an entirely different picture emerges: Bush does not demonstrate a life of faith by his actions, and neither Methodists, evangelicals, nor fundamentalists can rightly call him brother. In fact, the available evidence raises serious questions about whether Bush is really a Christian at all.
Ironically for a man who once famously named Jesus as his favorite political philosopher during a campaign debate, it is remarkably difficult to pinpoint a single instance wherein Christian teaching has won out over partisan politics in the Bush White House. Though Bush easily weaves Christian language and themes into his political communication, empty religious jargon is no substitute for a bedrock faith. Even little children in Sunday school know that Jesus taught his disciples to live according to his commandments, not simply to talk about them a lot. In Bush's case, faith without works is not just dead faith -- it's evangelical agitprop
Richard Land directs the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and a group that enjoys a close relationship with the Bush administration. In an interview for Frontline earlier this year, Land denounced the scriptural cherry-picking on the part of contemporary American Christians. “It's only been in the last half-century when you've had the rise of groups [in] modern Christendom who believe in what I call ‘Dalmatian theology,'” he explained. “The Bible's inspired in spots, and … [t]hey think they can reject large chunks of Christian Scripture and biblical revelation that they don't agree with … .”
But while Land's censure was probably intended for liberals, so, too, does it apply to the president. For George W. Bush does not live or govern under the complete authority of the Bible -- just the parts that work to his political advantage. And evangelical leaders like Land who blindly bless the Bush White House don't just muddy the division of church and state; worse, they completely violate Scripture.
Jesus, after all, didn't do politics.
The president's storied faith journey began at the bottom of a bottle and led him all the way to the White House. But though these accounts ramble on for hundreds of pages about his steadfast leadership and prayerfulness, they all curiously rely on one single event to confirm that Bush is a man transformed by a deep Christian faith: He quit drinking and took up running instead. “I would not be president today," Bush himself told a group of pastoral social workers in 2003, "if I hadn't stopped drinking 17 years ago. And I could only do that with the grace of God."
But Christianity is more than teetotalism and physical fitness. Conservative believers liken a Christian conversion to a spiritual heart transplant -- one that completely transfigures a person's motivations, sensibilities, relationships, and actions. In the Book of Ezekiel, God tells his children:
“I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws … .” (emphasis added)
Judging him on his record, George W. Bush's spiritual transformation seems to have consisted of little more than staying on the wagon, with Jesus as a sort of talismanic Alcoholics Anonymous counselor. Bush came to his faith through a small group program created by Community Bible Study, which de-emphasizes sin and resembles a sort of Jesus-centered therapy session.
But sin is crucial to Christianity. To be born again, a seeker must painfully acknowledge his or her innate sinfulness, and then turn away from it completely. And though today Bush is sober, he does not live and govern like a man who “walks” with God, using the Bible as a moral compass for his decision making. Twice in the past year -- once during an April press conference and most recently at a presidential debate -- the president was unable to name any mistake he has made during his term. His steadfast unwillingness to fess up to a single error betrays a strikingly un-Christian lack of attention to the importance of self-criticism, the pervasiveness of sin, and the centrality of humility, repentance, and redemption. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine George W. Bush delivering an address like Jimmy Carter's legendary “malaise” speech (in which he did not actually say the word “malaise”) in 1979. Carter sermonized to a dispirited nation in the language of confession, sacrifice, and spiritual restoration. Though it didn't do him a lick of good politically, it was consonant with a Christian theology of atonement: Carter admitted his mistakes to make right with God and the American people, politics be damned. Bush, for whom politics is everything, can't even admit that he's done anything wrong.
Save for a few standout reporters, the press has done a dismal job of covering the president's very public religiosity. Overwhelmingly lacking personal familiarity with conservative Christianity, political reporters have either avoided the topic or resorted to shopworn clichés and lazy stereotypes. Over and over, news stories align Bush with evangelical theology while loosely dropping terms like fundamentalist to describe his beliefs.
Once and for all: George W. Bush is neither born again nor evangelical. As Alan Cooperman reported in The Washington Post last month, the president has been careful never to use either term to describe his faith. Unlike millions of evangelicals, Bush did not have a single born-again experience; instead, he slowly came to Christianity over the course of several years, beginning with a deep conversation with the Reverend Billy Graham in the mid-1980s. And there is virtually no evidence that Bush places any emphasis on evangelizing -- or spreading the gospel -- in either his personal or professional life. Contrast this to Carter, who notoriously told every foreign dignitary he encountered about the good news of Jesus Christ.
If he is anything at all, Bush is nominally Methodist, the denomination of his home church in Dallas. John Wesley, Methodism's founder, emphasized an emotional “warming of the heart” to Christ as fundamental to conversion. (That self-help ethos is evident in the resident's “compassionate conservatism.”) But Wesley was equal part freedom fighter: As a pastor in 17th-century England, he was barred from the pulpit for crusading against the abhorrent evils of slavery. Wesley died a poor man, his life a testament to Christ's exhortation of charity in the Gospel of Mark: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Bush, on the other hand, is no ascetic firebrand. The president has a net worth of nearly $20 million, and there is no indication that he is on the brink of abandoning his fortune to live righteously with the poor. And unlike Wesley, Bush has never compromised his political standing to challenge the conservative status quo -- regardless of its Christian righteousness.
The president is, safe to say, a “Dalmatian” Methodist.
Two months prior to launching his first presidential campaign, Bush sat for an interview with The Dallas Morning News to discuss the role of religion in his life and his politics. He spoke evasively and didn't seem comfortable discussing his Christian conviction. “I view my religion as very personal,” he explained. “I want people to judge me on my deeds, not how I try to define myself as a religious person of words.”
But the president's supporters in Christendom cling to his words as prima facie evidence of his deep Christian faith. And though Bush is not an evangelical, he certainly talks like one. As has been often noted, Bush effortlessly speaks the language of the born again, and his remarks are loaded with subliminal messages to the nation's 60 million white evangelicals. Ironically, the theology embedded in this language is not even the president's own -- it belongs to Michael Gerson, Bush's crack speechwriter, himself a devout Christian and a graduate of Wheaton College, the “evangelical Harvard.” Far too often, though, the press confuses Gerson's words with Bush's beliefs.
The distinction is critical, as the press, as well as many of Bush's most ardent supporters, curiously points to the president's words, not his deeds, as evidence of his deep Christian faith. In Alan Cooperman's recent Washington Post article, David Frum, a (Jewish) former Bush speechwriter, said of the president's religious beliefs, “If you want to know what George Bush really thinks, look at what he says.”
Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, has met with the president and advised the Bush White House. “I sat down with [Bush],” he told me. “What I do know is that … [the president] is an honest guy who really believes what he says.”
Bush's attraction to Jesus jargon is no accident. As an aspiring pol, he learned early on that religious language could give him the cowboy cred he needed to woo voters in Texas. Doug Wead is a close friend of the Bush family and a prominent evangelical motivational speaker. Wead worked closely with the president when he advised George Bush Senior during the 1988 presidential campaign. “There's no question that [George W. Bush's] faith is real, that it's authentic … and there is no question that it's calculated,” Wead told Frontline. “I know that sounds like a contradiction.”
Wead taught Bush Junior to “signal early and signal often” when he spoke to conservative Christians on behalf of Bush Senior. “George would read my memos, and he would be licking his lips saying, ‘I can use this to win in Texas,'” Wead told Guy Lawson in an article that appeared last year in GQ.
But in the Bible, Jesus Christ disdained insincere religious posturing. In the famed parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, the penitent taxman prayed in a far corner of the temple and wept, hiding his face from God in shame. The Pharisee stood up, front and center, and exalted himself, thanking God that he was better than other men. Christ was unequivocal: “I tell you that [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
The president has made sure to tell any Christian media outlet that would listen that he reads the Bible daily. Does he skip over the Gospel of Luke?
Bush's defenders would argue that reproving the president's Christian commitment is opportunistic and cheap, perhaps even sinful. They would say that an outsider could never appreciate the depths of the man's private religious conviction.
But just as voters will judge his economic track record and his failed war in Iraq, so, too, must believers hold Bush's actions as president to the standard of his professed Christian beliefs. After all, Bush made religious faith his characterological calling card from the outset of his very first campaign. Scripture says we have a right to scrutinize such claims; indeed, Scripture even obligates Christians to protect one another from creeping sinfulness. The author of the letters to the Hebrews in the New Testament left no room for interpretation on this point: “Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart … . But encourage one another day after day … lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Just who will boldly hold the president accountable to Scripture? Sycophantic religious conservatives are heavily invested in politics; they dare not rock the boat. Religious liberals are cast aside as partisan. And as Amy Sullivan noted recently in The New Republic, Bush does not regularly attend church -- he doesn't even have a pastor or fellow congregants to keep him on the straight and narrow.
For Bible-believing Christians, nothing in the entire world is more important than “walking” with Jesus; that is, engaging in a personal relationship with their savior and living according to his word. With this in mind, I recently asked Haggard, himself the pastor of a large church in Colorado, why the president, as a man of supposedly strong faith, did not publicly apologize for continually misleading Americans in the run-up to the Iraq War. Instead, Bush clung zealously to misinformation and half-truths. I asked Haggard why, as a man of Christian principle, Bush did not fully disavow Karl Rove's despicable smear tactics and apologize for the ugly lies the Bush campaign spread over the years about Ann Richards, John McCain, and John Kerry, among others. After all, isn't getting right with God -- whatever the political price --the most important thing for the sort of Christian Bush has proclaimed himself to be?
Haggard laughed as though my questions were the most naive he'd ever heard. “I think if you asked the president these questions once he's out of office,” Haggard said, “he'd say, ‘You're right. We shouldn't have done it.' But right now if he said something like that, well, the world would spin out of control!
“That's why when Jimmy Carter ran, he [turned out to be] such a terrible president. Because when he [governed], he really tried to maintain [his integrity] and those types of values -- and that is virtually impossible.”
The pastor returned to my charges of Bush's deceitfulness. “Listen,” he said testily, “I think [we Christian believers] are responsible not to lie [sic], but I don't think we're responsible to say everything we know.”
Bush's religious backers like Haggard point to the president's policy agenda as evidence of his spiritual ideals. The Christian spirit of compassionate conservatism, they say, infuses Bush's commitment to policies like faith-based social services; many believers hold that a poverty of the spirit is at least partly to blame for such social ills as drug abuse and crime. Bush's stance on abortion and other so-called life issues is also in concordance with the conservative Christian worldview. And the administration's proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, while theologically dubious, certainly resonates among more traditionalist believers. Even the war in Iraq, on which Bush famously consulted his heavenly (rather than earthly) father, was proffered as an Old Testament-style battle between the forces of good and The Enemy, as such Christians refer to Satan. “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil,” the president declared after September 11.
But the aforementioned issues are Christological softballs, as it were. After all, Bush's positions on such matters land him safely in Republican territory. Never once has the president crossed party lines to uphold Christian principles such as aiding the poor or caring for the environment, for example. Much more of the president's record reveals a man with a far deeper commitment to partisanship, or just simply being right -- even at the expense of clear biblical teaching.
Ironically, the Bush's policy on embryonic stem-cell research, often described by its opponents as a triumph of theocracy over sound public policy, is better understood as just such a victory of partisanship over religious principle. It seems like a lifetime ago, but the debate over embryonic stem-cell research in the summer of 2001 was pitched as a battle between blinkered religiosity and scientific progress. On stem cells, Bush walked a fine line between two powerful constituencies early in his term: To his right, freshly empowered evangelicals and conservative Catholics vehemently opposed the destruction of live embryos, often referring to the cell clusters as “the tiniest human beings”; to his left stood the scientific community and, according to an ABC News/Beliefnet poll conducted at the time, 58 percent of Americans who supported the research.
On the campaign trail, Bush himself bandied about Catholic “culture of life” lingo while siding with religious conservatives who unequivocally opposed embryonic stem-cell research. "During the campaign, President-elect Bush ... said that as president he would oppose federally funded research or experimentation on embryonic stem cells that require live human embryos to be discarded or destroyed," spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in early 2001. The message was clear: Opposing embryonic stem-cell research was a matter of conscience for the new president.
But as Bush's political viability waned, so, too, did his Christian conviction. By August of 2001, he had finally located the political sweet spot: The president ultimately approved federal financing for research on 60 stem-cell lines that had already been harvested, but prohibited the creation of any new ones. The resulting policy is neither scientifically nor religiously defensible. If the destruction of embryos is the moral equivalent of murder, it should be banned; if it is not, there is no reason to restrict federal funding to already extant stem-cell lines. The decisive ethical issue here concerns the status of the embryo and the legitimacy of its destruction. Bush's position amounts to saying that murder is OK as long as it isn't done with federal funds. But while there may be little that can be said in favor of Bush's position from a moral or research point of view, it's the perfect answer to the president's political program. His base gets messages like “[embryonic stem-cell research] leads down a slippery slope [toward] designer clones,” while a general audience recently received a communiqué from the Bush campaign bragging that he "delivered the first funding ever for embryonic stem-cell research."
Conservative Christians call this moral relativism. But in the simpler language that George W. Bush prefers, it's a “flip-flop.”
In Exodus, the Ninth Commandment admonishes, “Thou shalt not bear false testimony against thy neighbor.” God wasn't joking around there. But time and again, Bush and Rove have relied on repugnant lies to discredit their opponents. In the final days of the Texas governor's race in 1994, barroom rumors swirled that Governor Ann Richards was a lesbian, and that she had appointed “avowed homosexuals” to her administration. Those rumors were lies, but Bush won the race.
In 2000, Bush squared off against John McCain in the hotly contested Republican presidential primary in South Carolina. Rather than go one on one with the war hero and popular pol, Bush let shady henchmen do his dirty work for him. In the final days before the showdown, Bush supporters waged whisper campaigns and distributed parking-lot handouts spreading the vilest of lies: that McCain was mentally unfit to serve after his long captivity in Vietnam; that his wife was a drug addict; that the senator had fathered a black daughter with a prostitute.
Bush won that race, too.
Little has changed this time around. When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged this summer to attack John Kerry's admirable military service in Vietnam, veteran observers of past Bush campaigns immediately recognized Karl Rove's handiwork. And with less than a month to go until November, the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group abruptly preempted regularly scheduled television programming to air a propaganda film that denigrates Kerry's war record. The media markets affected by this decision just happen to be in swing states.
Just how low will George W. Bush stoop for a victory?
For most candidates running for office, foul play is par for the course. But Bush is not like most other candidates. If he is a Christian, he is called to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a beacon of goodness and righteousness in a society havocked by moral depravity. In late May, Bush said as much to a group of Christian media players during a rare unscripted interview.
“I think a person's faith helps keep perspective in the midst of noise, pressure, sound -- all the stuff that goes on in Washington … ,” he explained. “It is one of the prayers I ask is that God's light shines through me as best as possible, no matter how opaque the window … .
“I'm in a world of … fakery and obfuscation, political back shots, and so I'm very mindful about the proper use of faith in this process And you can't fake your faith, nor can you use your faith as a shallow attempt to garner votes, otherwise you will receive the ultimate condemnation.” (emphasis added)
You can't, that is, if "ultimate condemnation" is your real concern. For the purposes of winning elections, it seems to do just fine.
Ayelish McGarvey is a Prospect writing fellow.