Both men profess their faith in Jesus Christ as their source of spiritual guidance and strength in time of distress. But Warner's claim is far more impressive and believable. Both men now operate in bitterly competitive realms, where small differences in effort, preparation, and luck can create the lasting gap between the all-celebrated winner and the pathetic also-rans. But the general circumstances of contact-sport competition, and the specific details of Warner's recent life, give his claims of faith a naturalness that Bush's inevitably lack.
The two men's respective spheres of endeavor, sports and politics, have in general been two of America's main showcases for European-style religiosity -- that is, ritualized displays of belief that no one was expected to take seriously. Richard Nixon convening a prayer breakfast in the White House was just about as impressive a demonstration of belief as some borderline-sociopath Major Leaguer crossing himself before he comes to bat.
There's a difference between the two, in that the politicians have been expected to display the symptoms of religious piety, whereas the athletes perform the rituals only for themselves, in the same way they might keep wearing their lucky socks. But in both cases the public is accustomed to see gestures of faith universally understood to be formalistic.
Sports and politics haven't been the only such showcases, of course. Beauty pageants may actually be the most egregious. The under-appreciated 1999 satire Drop Dead Gorgeous included the best lampooning of phony religiosity in years: Denise Richards's "talent" act in a pageant, in which she does the tango with a mannequin of the crucified Christ (removing his arm from the cross at one point, for a more natural dancing grip).
Richards's act might have been hard to peg as satire if it had been included in this year's halftime program in the Superbowl. With a giant figure looming in the background --half Darth Vader, half medieval icon of the Madonna -- strange little munchkins pranced around the turf, and Edward James Olmos appeared in the corner of the TV screen every so often to offer Obi-Wan Kenobe-like thought-drops about the spiritual significance of the Millennium.
With this kind of religiosity--all form, preposterous substance--TV has no problem. But when there is a note of impending sincerity, the producers get nervous. During the Superbowl, the broadcasters seemed to be waving the "Cut!!!" sign when Kurt Warner's wife, interviewed in the stands about his miraculous season, immediately began giving thanks to the generosity and goodness of Jesus. When Warner himself went over to pray alongside Blaine Bishop, an opposing Titan player who for a moment seemed to have been gravely injured, announcers treated it as another of his endearing personality traits as opposed to something he might believe.
Similarly: political commentators routinely show politicians going into and out of church, but they were noticeably thrown for a loop when George W. Bush, asked in December what political philosopher had influenced him most, replied curtly, "Christ." (You could almost see the interviewer thinking: "Is he going to say, 'Christ, what a stupid question' ?")
If Bush was occasionally too earnest-sounding for TV, and so was Warner, what's Warner's claim to greater plausibility? Simply that the circumstances of Warner's life suggest a much stronger connection between his stated belief and his daily activities than in Bush's case. Here I don't mean the familiar story of Warner's rise, in less than a year, from nobody to football's Most Valuable Player, an ascent that could suggest either divine or satanic influence. (Douglas Wallop's novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which inspired the musical Damn Yankees, was based on the premise of a nobody baseball player who sells his soul to the devil for a season like the one Warner has just had.)
At work they are often more important for their badge of tribal identity -- the Rams uniform, rather than the Titans'-- than for their individual qualities as people. And while they have to struggle and behave as if their efforts determine their fate, they know in the end that fate is out of their control. After each quarterback blitz, a player may not get up again. All this sense of vulnerability may build an Old Testament awareness of man's punyness in the great scheme of things. In modern athletes it's coupled with something the original Old Testament citizens lacked: being able to turn to the New Testament savior for shelter from these blasts. Thus we hear thanks to Jesus, rather than seeing Hasidim in football uniforms.
By contrast we have professional politicians. They're required by modern electoral dynamics to talk a lot about their faith (and their families, and their affinity with every ethnic group they're talking to or neighborhood they're visiting, etc), so we shouldn't hold that against them. John McCain can afford to be less showy in his public expressions than others, since he has famously endured an Old Testament ordeal. George Bush exercises a similar, intriguing degree of restraint when discussing the specific episode in which faith seems to have made the biggest difference in his life: helping him cope with his drinking a decade ago.
But that episode--in its similarity to the chanciness of the athlete's existence, and in its distance from the rest of Bush's no-heavy-lifting path through life--helps explain the tinny sound of his general claims to be guided by Christ.The rule I'm suggesting is this: a public declaration of faith is more convincing when it comes from people who manifestly understand that they're not in perfect control of life, and less convincing from people who think they've worked things out well for themselves. Kurt Warner knows that, despite his condition and his effort, he could be permanently disabled the next time a linebacker hits him. George Bush, in his drinking days, presumably had the drinker's sense of being out of control of his behavior and destiny.
But Bush the modern politician has acted as if he could control and engineer this process -- raise the money, wait out the campaign, let the inevitable occur. We can't look into his soul and know what he meant when he snapped out "Christ." But I know that if a few more lost primaries gives him more of the scrambling-quarterback's sense of impending danger, he may become a more convincing religious figure.