The Real Reasons Evangelicals Love Bush
Persecution. Transformation. Calling. Clarity.
Evangelical Christians have many reasons to be disappointed or even furious with George W. Bush. During his presidency, there have been roughly 5 million abortions. He has not persistently campaigned to "change the culture" as he promised. He focused on partial-birth abortions which, though gruesome, constitute a miniscule fraction of those performed.
On gay marriage, I believe the Bush presidency will be viewed as a boon for gays because, while he supports banning gay marriage, he also said states should be able to perform civil unions, a major concession. Some were furious that the White House let Dick Cheney say that even the marriage issue should be decided by the states.
Yet while some evangelicals have soured on Bush, polls show the vast majority of evangelicals love him. Why?
It's often said that they like him because he's "one of them" and uses religious language, and that's true--but only scratches the surface. Two new books and a new film on Bush and faith help us to see the real roots of his appeal. All three are campaign-style hagiographies but give a window into the spiritual sources of the Bush-evangelical connection: persecution, transformation, calling, and clarity.
First, Christians feel persecuted. This idea is nearly unfathomable to people in New York City or non-evangelicals. How could they feel persecuted? The country is 83% Christian! They're always trying to impose their views on us. But many evangelical Christians believe they are despised, misunderstood and discriminated against by journalists, Hollywood, other elites, and almost anyone not in their pack.
And there is a grain of truth to their concerns. A recent poll showed that while most Americans say a candidate's religion would not affect their vote for presidency, there is one religious type that they would vote against just because of their beliefs: an evangelical Christian. (Actually there were three faith-based non-starters: evangelical, Muslim, and atheist--perhaps they should form a new coalition?) The film, called "George W. Bush: Faith in the White House" intersperses clips of Bush with photos of school kids who had been punished for praying in the cafeteria.
George Bush, the film and recent biographies argue, has been persecuted and/or misunderstood for his beliefs, too. "God and George W. Bush" by Paul Kengor devotes two sentences to Bush's comment in a campaign debate that Jesus Christ was his favorite philosopher--and four pages to the hostile reaction. The media "wrung its hands" and showed its "scorn" but Bush bravely stood his ground. "It's my foundation and if it costs me votes to have answered the question that way, so be it," Bush declared.
The film, which will be sent to thousands of churches around America, continuously overstates the opposition to his plans, declaring, for instance, that "opposition was thunderous" to his faith-based initiative, when in fact, even Al Gore supported the idea. But evangelicals viewed Bush as persevering over contemptuous opposition.
Feeling persecuted has special resonance for Christians for obvious reasons: it's Christ-like. The more liberals beat up on Bush's faith, the better for Bush.
Beyond that, every time Bush speaks of his faith, he is signaling to those Christians who feel marginalized that they have, in fact, arrived at the center of American society. They have a President who's just like them, so they need not feel ashamed or embattled. He is bearing their cross. "I don't think they feel they have to hide their Christian faith because the president doesn't hide it," one analyst says in the film.
Second, Bush was transformed. If Bush had grown up in an evangelical household and been a practicing Christian his whole life, he probably wouldn't be President today. The apostle Paul's story is powerful because he started out as an anti-Christian sinner; he was lost and then was found. That's why Bush and his Christian supporters love talking about his drinking problems and recklessness. To be saved, you must first be fallen.
This was doubly important because Bush was a child of privilege. America has elected such men but only after they had overcome adversity or challenges--FDR had polio, JFK and Bush, Sr. had their war heroism.