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."
Bush is different, because he uses theology as the guts of his argument. "That's very unusual in the long sweep of American history," Waldman says.
Bush has clearly seen a divine aspect to his presidency since before he ran. Many Americans know the President had a religious conversion at age 39, when he, as he describes it, "came to the Lord" after a weekend of talks with the Rev. Billy Graham. Within a year, he gave up drinking and joined a men's Bible study group at First United Methodist Church in Midland, Texas. From that point on, he has often said, his Christian faith has grown.
By 1999, Bush was saying he believed in a "divine plan that supersedes all human plans." He talked of being inspired to run for President by a sermon delivered by the Rev. Mark Craig, pastor of Bush's Dallas congregation, Highland Park United Methodist Church. Craig talked about the reluctance of Moses to become a leader. But, said Mr. Craig, then as now, people were "starved for leadership"--leaders who sacrifice to do the right thing. Bush said the sermon "spoke directly to my heart and talked about a higher calling." But in 1999, as he prepared to run for President, he was quick to add in an interview: "Elections are determined by human beings."
Richard Land recalls being part of a group of about a dozen people who met after Bush's second inauguration as Texas governor in 1999. At the time, everyone in Texas was talking about Bush's potential to become the next President. During the meeting, Land says, Bush said, "I believe God wants me to be President, but if that doesn't happen, it's OK." Land points out that Bush didn't say that God actually wanted him to be President. He merely said he believed God wanted him to be President.
During World War II, the American Protestant thinker Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about God's role in political decision-making. He believed every political leader and every political system falls short of absolute justice-that the Allies didn't represent absolute right and Hitler didn't represent absolute evil because all of us, as humans, stand under the ultimate judgment of God. That doesn't mean politicians can't make judgments based on what they believe is right; it does mean they need to understand that their position isn't absolutely morally clear.
"Sometimes [President] Bush comes close to crossing the line of trying to serve the nation as its religious leader, rather than its political leader," says Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a clergy-led liberal lobbying group.
Certainly, European leaders seem to be bothered by Bush's rhetoric and it possibly does contribute to a sense in Islamic countries that Bush is on an anti-Islamic "crusade."
Radwan Masmoudi, executive director of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, worries about it. "Muslims, all over the world, are very concerned that the war on terrorism is being hijacked by right-wing fundamentalists, and transformed into a war, or at least a conflict, with Islam. President Bush is a man of faith, and that is a positive attribute, but he also needs to learn about and respect the other faiths, including Islam, in order to represent and serve all Americans."
In hindsight, even Bush's inaugural address presaged his emerging theology. He quoted a colonist who wrote to Thomas Jefferson that "We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?" Then Bush said:
"Much time has passed since Jefferson arrived for his inauguration. The years and changes accumulate, but the themes of this day he would know, 'our nation's grand story of courage and its simple dream of dignity.'
"We are not this story's author, who fills time and eternity with His purpose. Yet His purpose is achieved in our duty, and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another. Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today; to make our country more just and generous; to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life.
"This work continues. This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm."