George W. Bush and the Latest Evangelical Menace

George W. Bush and the Latest Evangelical Menace

In March 2003, Newsweek pronounced George W. Bush’s presidency the “most resolutely ‘faith based’ in modern times.” This judgment is plausible enough to merit serious consideration but it is self-evidently true only if modern times began on January 20, 1989, when George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, there has been little serious examination of this judgment. Rather, a facile stereotype of a “faith-based” presidency has become conventional wisdom among Bush’s friends and foes alike.

Theologically and politically conservative Protestants quickly rushed to claim the president as one of their own in interviews, articles, and at least three books on his faith.These three books—Paul Kengor, God and George W. Bush (Harper Collins, 2004); David Aikman, A Man of Faith: The Spiritual Journey of George W. Bush (W Publishing Group, 2004); and Stephen Mansfield, The Faith of George W. Bush (Penguin, 2004)—vary in quality but all provide the basic information. Liberals and radicals have also emphasized the influence of Bush’s faith on his policies, but they are appalled. The alliance between this “messianic militarist” (Ralph Nader) and the “evangelical menace” (New York Review of Books) has brought the country to the edge of an “American theocracy” (Kevin Phillips). Ron Suskind, one of many journalists who recently discovered American religiosity, claimed in the New York Times Magazine that Bush’s administration is so strongly “faith-based” that it ignores earthly reality in most significant respects.

Those who view Bush as an exceptionally religious president leading an extraordinarily religious administration typically stress three points. First, Bush experienced a religious conversion in his early forties and it has stuck. Asked to name his favorite philosopher in 1999, Bush cited “Christ, because He changed my life.” Bush prays often, reads both the Bible and inspirational meditations every day, and says frequently that he seeks and receives God’s guidance as president. Second, some of his major appointees, including former chief speech writer Michael Gerson and former attorney general John Ashcroft, are evangelical or Pentecostal Protestants. Third, in his positions on gay rights, abortion, birth control, evolution, and stem-cell research, Bush has cultivated Protestant theological conservatives. In addition, he created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and sought wide-ranging legislation to facilitate the quest for government contracts by religious organizations.

But Bush in fact swims within the mainstream of presidential religiosity—even recent presidential religiosity—though his cultivation of theological conservatives clearly places him on the right side of that stream. Moreover, there are good reasons for the left to try to understand this issue instead of fulminating about it.