It's hard to believe that's the same George W. Bush. Since taking office -- and especially in the last couple weeks -- Bush's personal faith has turned highly public, arguably more so than any modern President. What's important is not that Bush is talking about God more, but that he's talking about him differently. We are witnessing a shift in Bush's theology--from talking mostly about a Wesleyan theology of "personal transformation" to describing a Calvinist "divine plan" laid out by a sovereign God for the country and himself. This shift has the potential to affect Bush's approach to terrorism, Iraq and his presidency.
On Thursday, at the National Prayer Breakfast, for instance, Bush said, "we can be confident in the ways of Providence... Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God."
Calvin, whose ideas are critical to contemporary evangelical thought, focused on the idea of a powerful God who governs "the vast machinery of the whole world." Bush has made several statements indicating he believes God is involved in world events and that he and America have a divinely guided mission:
A month after the World Trade Center attack, World Magazine, a conservative Christian publication, quoted Tim Goeglein, deputy director of White House public liaison, saying, "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility." Time magazine reported that "Privately, Bush even talked of being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment." The net effect is a theology that seems to imply that God is intervening in events, is on America's side, and has chosen Bush to be in the White House at this critical moment.
"All sorts of warning signals ought to go off when a sense of personal chosenness and calling gets translated into a sense of calling and mission for a nation," says Robin Lovin, a United Methodist ethicist and professor of religion and political thought at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Lovin says what the President seems to be lacking is theological humility and an awareness of moral ambiguity.
Richard Land, a top Southern Baptist leader with close ties to the White House, argues that Bush's sense of divine oversight is part of why he has become such a good wartime leader. He brings a moral clarity and self-confidence that inspires Americans and scares enemies. "We don't inhabit that relativist universe [of European leaders]," Land says. "We really believe some things are good and some things bad."
It's even possible that Bush's belief in America's moral rightness makes the country's military threats seem more genuine because the world thinks Bush is "on a mission."
Presidents have always used Scripture in their speeches as a source of poetry and morality, according to Michael Waldman, President Clinton's chief speechwriter, author of "POTUS Speaks" and now a visiting professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Lincoln, he says, was the first President to use the Bible extensively in his speeches, but one of the main reasons was that his audience knew the Bible--Lincoln was using what was then common language. Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1912 speech to the Progressive Party, closed with these words: "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord." Carter, Reagan and Clinton all used Scripture, but Waldman says their use was more as a "grace note."