Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Good lord. Newsweek's Howard Fineman has a detailed, insightful, and respectful piece this week on George W. Bush's deep religious beliefs, which inform everything from his domestic agenda to his views on the war against terrorism. The article's value is that it explains the roots of Bush's spiritual fervor, but it also delves into a deeper concern: that Bush's particular brand of religiosity does not lend itself particularly well to debate or even to agonized reflection. Fineman writes:

The president is known to welcome questions about faith that staffers sometimes have the nerve to share with him. But he's not the kind to initiate granular debates about theology. Would Iraq be a "just war" in Christian terms, as laid out by Augustine in the fourth century and amplified by Aquinas, Luther and others? Bush has satisfied himself that it would be -- indeed, it seems he did so many months ago. But he didn't do it by combing through texts or presiding over a disputation. He decided that Saddam was evil, and everything flowed from that.

An accompanying piece by the liberal theologian Martin Marty is bluntly titled "The Sin of Pride." Marty worries that a president who believes that God's on his side may lack the judgment and humility to take into account the concerns of others -- especially in the crisis over Iraq.

Despite Bush's frequent references to Islam as a "religion of peace," Marty notes that Bush's one-time reference to the war against terrorism as a "crusade" has not been forgotten in the Muslim world. The support Bush receives from evangelical Christians who denounce Islam -- such as the preacher Franklin Graham, for instance -- hasn't been overlooked, either.

Marty writes:

After September 11 and the president's decision to attack Iraq, the talk that other nations found mildly amusing or merely arrogant has taken on international and historical significance. It rouses many Americans to an uncertain cause and raises antagonism among millions elsewhere. Few doubt that Bush is sincere in his faith, a worthy virtue when he alone must decide whether to lead 270 million people into war, possibly killing thousands of others. The problem isn't with Bush's sincerity, but with his evident conviction that he's doing God's will.

For millions of Americans, of course, Bush's brand of Christianity is the best thing about him. Expressing any doubts about his religion is dangerous, since it's sure to raise cries of religious bigotry. Newsweek deserves credit for asking some tough questions about how religion and government may be intersecting in ways that we will later come to regret.

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