God's Politics

On the night of January 11, Joe Scarborough began his MSNBC show by commenting on President Bush’s leadership, especially in regard to the Iraq war and unfolding anxieties about Iran. “Never have I seen a president so alone,” he stated, “having lost an election, deserted by the American people, and abandoned by his party.” Scarborough, and his guest, fellow conservative Pat Buchanan, literally piled on the president – questioning Bush’s capacities as a leader.

For much of his presidency, George Bush engendered confidence in many Christians who praised him as a leader, uniquely appointed (and perhaps anointed) by God for this moment in history. In the wake of September 11, 2001, many Americans seemed to agree, and consistently gave Bush high marks on leadership abilities. Since Hurricane Katrina, however, the nation has watched his leadership crumble, to the nadir following this week’s surge speech. When it comes to Iraq, the most pressing issue of the day, two out of three Americans now believe that the president is not a good leader.

Of course, leadership is lonely business. And no leader should depend on polls or the popularity of his or her ideas for validation. But all this has given me pause: What makes for a good leader? Especially from a Christian perspective? What should faithful people expect from their leaders?

Certainly, Christian leadership involves prayer, scripture study, and envisioning a better future – all things President Bush probably practices. Yet, something appears to be missing from Bush’s leadership.

The timing of Bush’s speech provides an interesting leadership contrast, a contrast that highlights that missing something. On January 15, the nation will celebrate a remarkable Christian political leader: Martin Luther King, Jr.

King models what Presbyterian pastor Graham Standish calls humble leadership. (N. Graham Standish, Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace, The Alban Institute, forthcoming.) I suspect that many Americans, especially the Christians who voted for him, hoped that President Bush would be a humble leader – an “aw shucks” regular guy, “the uniter, not divider” – a person whose fundamental simplicity would allow us to achieve generous compassion while retaining traditional American values. Perhaps he could be a channel for our better selves. Whether or not it actually was the case, Bush appeared to many as the model of humble leadership.

As it is becoming increasingly clear, President Bush is the opposite of the humble leader. He has morphed into a hubris leader – apparently lacking self-awareness (does he really believe he made mistakes?), dividing people and even driving away former friends, and reacting to situations instead of leading proactively. The most telling contrast between the humble leader and the hubris leader is, however, the contrast of personal sacrifice. Martin Luther King was willing to sacrifice himself to enact peace; George Bush is willing to sacrifice other people’s children to secure his place in history.

Bush’s leadership is not about God’s dream for justice; it is not even about the American people. It appears to be about saving his presidency and creating his legacy. Even with all the criticism and defeats, he seems doggedly committed to his vision for the world. What of the rest of us? What of God’s dream of shalom? And who has the humility to lead America in this painful and dangerous time?

Diana Butler BassDiana Butler Bass ( is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, recently published by Harper San Francisco.

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