2016-07-27
Consider this scene: It is the White House Press Correspondents Dinner in early May of 2002. The press corps, with their spouses and dates, are all in attendance at the elegant affair, as are President and Mrs. Bush. And there is another invitee, one who seems a bit out of place. His hair is beyond shoulder-length, his colorful tattoos fill his arms and crawl up his neck, and his years of substance abuse have left him with a look on his face that crosses deer-caught-in headlights with irritated owl.

His name is Ozzy Osbourne-the rocker of biting-the-heads-off-of-bats fame, of language-so-bad-that-MTV-bleeps-every-other-word fame.

The president rises to make a few remarks. Turning to Mr. Osbourne, he says, "The thing about Ozzy is, he's made a lot of big hit recordings. `Party With the Animals,' Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,' Facing Hell,' Black Skies' and `Bloodbath in Paradise.'"

The audience is taken aback. They are not sure what is coming next, and they are somewhat surprised that this notoriously Christian and country-music president can name those songs.

Bush, of course, is smirking. While the audience chuckles, he says, "Ozzy, my mom loves your stuff." The place erupts with laughter.

Immediately after the dinner, some conservatives and religious leader protest that the president has welcomed such a cultural villain into the hallowed halls. The White House has no comment except to say that a good time was had by all.

What type is this president now? What category in style and politics his friends in the sixties said he belonged to their parents' generation. Yet his primary ally on the world scene is the leader of the British Labor Party, Tony Blair. Virtually alone, they stood together in support of the invasion of Iraq, and they have opened up a new chapter in Anglo-American relations.

At the foundation of their friendship is faith. Blair was raised by an atheist father and a mother who went to church only occasionally. At Oxford, he became a Christian of the long-haired, guitar-playing variety and later joined the Christian Socialist movement then spreading through Europe. He pioneered his New Labor movement on a foundation of faith, distinguishing it from Old Labor, which was notoriously atheistic.

Still, he was careful about wrapping politics in religious garb. "I can't stand politicians who wear God on their sleeves," he wrote in 1996. "I do not pretend to be any better or less selfish than anyone else; I do not believe that Christians should only vote Labor." He also described prayer as "a source of solace," the Gospels as "a most extraordinary expression of sensitive human values," and Jesus as a "modernizer."

And George W. Bush, the conservative millionaire businessman, is the friend of this ex-hippie Labor leader. They have shared Scripture together, prayed together, and discussed the morality of policy on walks at Camp David. Clearly, faith trumps politics in this relationship.

So, which of the Bush-types is this?

And then: In 1994, while campaigning for governor, Bush expressed his support for a sodomy law that criminalized homosexuality. He called it "a symbolic gesture of traditional values."

It should be said, too, that his conservative Christianity brands homosexual conduct a sin, and his philosophy of culture regards it as destructive of a healthy society.

Yet, on April 9, 2001, just months after taking office, Bush appointed an openly gay man, Scott H. Evertz, as director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. Later, he appointed another homosexual man, Michael Guest, as U.S. ambassador to Romania.

On what shelf do we put this version of the president?

The "profiling" of Bush fails us. The truth is much simpler and much more complex at the same time. He is a man of faith feeling his way along the dimly lit path of religiously responsible politics. He has no blueprint, no modern handbook for being both president and Christian, conservative, compassionate, fully human, and engaged in life at the same time. Yet, he has assumptions laid upon him that are rooted more in myths about religion than in anything he has said or done.

Chief among the slurs inspired by a conservative Christian in the White House is that he will hasten the coming of Armageddon. This is particularly a concern among the non-Christian and the nonreligious-those forced to stand outside the fold and listen to Christian end-of-history scenarios that shame the wildest science fiction. Not all Christians hold such views, though, and those who don't resent having the assumption laid on them.

The myth goes something like this: All Bible-thumpers believe that history will end with a cataclysmic battle on a plain called Armageddon just north of Jerusalem, and Bible-thumping politicians see it as their duty to bring this battle to pass. This fear was first inspired by Reagan's ruminations on the End Times and has gained new currency with the popularity of the Left-Behind series of novels in America.

Even his critics admit that this is a misrepresentation of both Bush and his staff. Journalist Christopher Hitchens has written, "Neither Gerson nor Rove has anything to do with `end time' or `premillennial' Christianity, and neither believes that an intense military tussle with Satan is soon to take place at Armageddon. This is an often circulated slander against them, and against Bush, too."

Such assumptions about religion and the religious make suspect the simplest statements. On May 8, 1999, John Ashcroft, the future attorney general, was awarded an honorary doctorate by Bob Jones University. In a short speech of thanks, Ashcroft mentioned that during the American Revolution, correspondence from the colonies to George III included the statement, "We have no king but Jesus." He went on to make comparisons between a "culture that has no king but Caesar, no standard but the civil authority, and a culture that has no king but Jesus, no standard but the eternal authority."

The three-minute speech caused a firestorm of controversy. Critics accused Ashcroft of advocating a theocracy and trouncing the First Amendment. Even four years later, Christopher Hitchens rebuked Ashcroft by saying, "We have no king at all, and we have no state church, or official religion, and that's that. It's also supposed to be the essential difference between ourselves and the homicidal fundamentalists."

However, Ashcroft was simply recalling the intent of the Founding Fathers. And he was right. Correspondence with King George did include the phrase, "No king but Jesus," and it so resonated with the colonists that militiamen chanted it as they marched into battle. The fear of such historical references arises from the belief that all religious-types in politics want a theocracy. Not the soft-spoken Ashcroft, though. In the text of an earlier speech released by the White House to address the controversy, Ashcroft stated, "We must embrace the power of faith, but we must never confuse politics and piety. For me, may I say that it is against my religion to impose my religion."

This fear of the religious impetus in politics is often rooted in oversimplification. For example, when Bush was once asked what people could pray for in the wake of 9/11, he said, "That there's a shield of protection, so that if the vile ones try to hit us again, that we've done everything we can, physically, and that there is a spiritual shield that protects the country." One commentator replied, "My God, is that all he's relying on, a shield of prayer?"


Yet Bush's statement came months after he had launched the war in Afghanistan and as he was planning the invasion of Iraq. He does not believe in prayer or missiles, the spiritual or the natural. He believes they are both intertwined, that the visible and the invisible parallel, which is simply the "mere Christianity" of the ages. His critics on religious matters, not understanding this, want to paint him as hypermystical.

What confuses some is the earthly nature of Bush's spirituality. He has not grown in his faith by pondering theological problems or meditating on mystical abstractions. He has grown by watching his heroes, listening to stories, and learning of the heavenly through earthly example.

Characteristically, he sees a symbol for the power of sin in the way scrub brush chokes out good plant growth on his ranch. He loves the psalms where spiritual truth is often expressed in terms of nature: The heavens pour forth speech, trees sing for joy, and the seas contain God's "wonders in the deep."

This spiritual earthiness is the foundation of Bush's unique friendship with James Robison. Bush and preachers are not naturally a good fit. He has surely heard the jokes: that a man-eating lion would die of starvation at a preacher's convention, that there are actually three genders-men, women, and preachers. They illustrate the point that ministers are not usually models of masculinity-that manliness is often in short supply among the clergy.

Robison is different. A tall, muscular Texan, Robison is a man's man. His speech is straight and unflowery, delivered with a visceral passion and physicality that draws his listeners in. He hunts, fishes, loves sports, and is at home in the outdoors. This is the common language he shares with Bush. The two have prayed together while hiking Bush's ranch or talked about faith, gun in hand, while waiting for game to approach. Sports and nature provide the metaphor for the spiritual truths the two men share. Here again is another seeming Bush contradiction: His earthiness is the key to his spirituality, the visible is the gateway to his understanding of the invisible.

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