"The president's faith has been misunderstood," White House aide Jim Towey recently told the Associated Press. "I don't see him as any different from his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans."
Towey is partly right. Democrats tend to overreact to Bush's public use of religious rhetoric, which has usually been responsible, inspiring, and poetic. Typical was the moment during his convention speech in which he marveled at those who had prayed for him despite their own losses.
But while Bush's official comments about faith have been mostly within the mainstream tradition of presidential rhetoric, his supporters lately have gone in a less-familiar direction: conveying the idea that God is responsible for Bush being in the White House.
"He is one of those men God and fate somehow lead to the fore in times of challenge," said 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.
"I thank God that on September 11th we had a president who didn't wring his hands and wonder what America had done wrong to deserve this attack," he added. "I thank God we had a president who understood that America was attacked, not for what we had done wrong, but for what we did right."
If he'd said "thank God" just once we might have concluded this was simply colloquial usage-a dramatic way of saying, "It's a darn good thing." That the man introducing Bush thanked God three times makes it suspicious, even more so given these lines from Rudy Giuliani's speech two nights earlier: "Spontaneously, I grabbed the arm of then Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and said to Bernie, 'Thank God George Bush is our president.' And," to reinforce the point, Giuliani added, "And I say it again tonight: Thank God George Bush is our president."
Perhaps Pataki and Giuliani snuck in all those "thank Gods" without the Bush campaign noticing. Not likely. William Smith, a Republican political consultant who used to work with Karl Rove, says, "Having been there and worked with Karl, there's not a phrase or comma by anyone-down to the cleanup crew-that he didn't write or approve."
This is not the first time it's been suggested that God deserves thanks for the 2000 election results. Several sympathetic books about Bush and his faith make a big deal of his deciding to run for president after hearing a Texas minister named Rev. Mark Craig preach about how Moses had been called to service by God. Bush's mother reportedly turned to her son after the sermon and said, "He was talking to you."
Stephen Mansfield, author of The Faith of George W. Bush, goes on to say: "Not long after, Bush called James Robison (a prominent minister) and told him, 'I've heard the call. I believe God wants me to run for President.' " Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention heard Bush say something similar: "Among the things he said to us was, 'I believe God wants me to be President, but if that doesn't happen, it's OK.'"
After 9/11, the sense among his supporters that God had chosen him increased. "I think that God picked the right man at the right time for the right purpose," said popular Christian broadcaster Janet Parshall. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who got in trouble for derogatory comments about Islam, argued that it must have been God who selected Bush, since a plurality of voters hadn't. "Why is this man in the White House? The majority of America did not vote for him. He's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this." (Boykin still has his job.)
Even former President George H.W. Bush speculated that perhaps he needed to be defeated so that his son could become president: "If I'd won that election in 1992, my oldest son would not be president of the United States of America," he said. "I think the Lord works in mysterious ways."
Are the White House and the Bush campaign actively encouraging the idea that Bush has been put there by God? Bush has been careful never to say anything close to that in public. And yet the combination of passages in carefully vetted speeches and quotes from close friends or supporters indicate that this is the understanding.
In one sense, it's not surprising that some people believe this. Many, if not most, Americans believe that God intervenes in the lives of humans. If that weren't the case, prayer might be considered superfluous, meaningless. If God intervenes in the affairs of ordinary humans who pray for recovery from illness or a better job, it only stands to reason that He would control something as consequential as an American presidency.
Other presidents certainly believed that God was guiding America's fate. James Madison referred to the "Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations." Andrew Jackson beseeched that "He will continue to make our beloved country the object of His divine care and gracious benediction." Even Thomas Jefferson, considered a Deist, said it was the Supreme Being "who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and ... who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with his wisdom and power."
Yet it's hard to recall another instance of a presidential campaign so confidently promulgating the idea that its candidate had divine endorsement. The potentially dangerous implication is that since God put George W. Bush in the White House, opposing him is opposing Him. A person could get smited for that.
Of course, it's always possible God did put George W. Bush in the White House. But if He did, it doesn't theologically follow that He wants him to have a second term. Even those who believe that God controls world events usually concede it is hard for humans to divine the intent of the Divine.
After all, in the Bible, God is described as doing things for all sorts of inexplicable reasons-sometimes as a reward to the people, and sometimes as a punishment.