Many evangelicals think America is secular and decadent and in cultural decline. Their role, they believe, is to stem that tide and renew the culture. Many of these Christians seem to believe that God will be angry with them-and with the entire nation-if they don't make big legislative changes. And so, they put themselves on a short leash with God, and they hope to convince other Americans to do likewise.
"God is not going to tolerate a nation that thumbs its nose at Him," Colson says. "This whole idea of scrubbing all religious influence out of public life and taking down the Ten Commandments and stopping prayer and not allowing people to talk about their faith for fear of offending someone--I don't think God honors that. God's patience runs out."
Their solution seems to lie in Bush's presidency. "He is one of those men God and fate somehow led to the fore in times of challenge," said New York Gov. George Pataki in the high-profile introduction of Bush at the Republican National Convention, an introduction almost certainly scrubbed if not written by the White House. Pataki and former New York Mayor Rudoph Giuliani both said twice that Americans should "Thank God" that Bush was in office after 9/11.
During the period after 9/11, Bush talked of being chosen by the grace of God to lead at that moment, according to Time magazine. World Magazine, a conservative Christian publication, quoted White House official Tim Goeglein as saying, "I think President Bush is God's man at this hour, and I say this with a great sense of humility." Popular Christian broadcaster Janet Parshall told her listeners: "God picked the right man at the right time for the right purpose." And Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who got in trouble for derogatory comments he made about Islam, argued that it must have been God who selected Bush in 2000, since a plurality of voters hadn't. "He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."
It seems clear that the president himself believes that God is orchestrating American history. At the 2003 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."
Barry Hankins, a historian at Baylor University, says these sorts of beliefs arose with the founding of the nation and persist among certain Christians. "There is a strong cultural belief among Protestant Christians that America is a vehicle for God's will," he says. "If you scratch people enough below the surface, there's this belief that Providence has a hand in everything that happens in America. And at times like this it comes out because it's in the back of people's minds or hearts."
The Puritans believed they were establishing the New Israel and that their enterprise was guided by God--that they were God's chosen people headed for the Promised Land. But that metaphorical idea, that America was a beacon, began to mutate by the early 19th Century into the belief that America was the literal instrument to lead a world transformation to Christian democracy.
The last time this triumphal view was common was during the Reagan Administration. Before then it was the Cold War struggle of the 1950s. "It was very difficult for evangelicals to stop short of saying God was on our side," Hankins says.
Not all evangelicals buy the argument, however. Erwin McManus, a rising evangelical leader who leads a Los Angeles church called Mosaic, believes this interpretation is short-sighted and isolationist. "What we really need to ask is, what choices do we make that serve humanity the best and reflect the value system the Bible teaches? How do I relieve the most suffering? How do I do the most good? How do I give people the best options to live the life they should live? How do I create a culture of life?"
McManus, a registered independent who voted for Bush, says members of his conservative, evangelical, Bible-centered church don't believe God intervened in the election. Their average age is 25 and they represent 57 nations. "They feel embarrassed when they hear language that sounds elitist, because that isn't Christian to them," McManus says.
But that isn't how many evangelicals understand their language. They consider it fair warning. Land looks to the Old Testament for proof. "When God's people were idolatrous and rebellious he sent justice--sometimes evil kings and sometimes foreign conquerors," he says. "I've said on numerous occasions, that if God would allow his chosen people to be taken off into captivity, don't think he won't judge the United States."