Foreign Press Discovers Christianity Through President Bush but Spins Lies to Incite Hate for Bush
One Man and His God
By Jonathan Steinberg, Walter H. Annenberg professor of modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania.
Published: June 11 2004 18:13 | Last Updated: June 14 2004 12:01
George W. Bush is a deeply religious man and the US remains a very religious country. In February 2004, Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Trust's Religion Programme, wrote that in a recent poll, "Eighty-five per cent of respondents stated that religion was either 'very' or 'fairly' important in their lives, and nearly 60 per cent reported that they attend religious services at least once or twice a month."
If religion matters in general, the particular religion that President Bush avows matters all the more. Bush and many of his closest advisers are Evangelicals, a variant of Christianity that non-Americans scarcely comprehend, and Americans in the large urban centres rarely encounter.
According to The Economist in its "American Survey" of November 2003, Evangelical Christians make up the largest single religious group in the US, larger than Roman Catholics. Thirty per cent of all Americans in 2003 (up from 24 per cent in 1987) belong to the group, which, according to Professor George Marsden of Notre Dame University in Indiana, includes "holiness churches, Pentecostals, traditionalist Methodists, all sorts of Baptists, Presbyterians, black churches in all these traditions, fundamentalists, pietist groups, Reformed and Lutheran confessionalists, Anabaptists such as Mennonites, Churches of Christ, to name only the most prominent types". In spite of this bewildering variety, Evangelicals generally agree on the absolute authority, and literal truth, of the Bible, the redemptive power of Christ, the importance of missionary work and the centrality of a spiritually transformed life.
George Bush became an Evangelical in 1985 by being "born again". Being born again transforms the believer. As the Gospel According to St John puts it, "Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John, 3:5). Bush makes no secret of the fact that God transformed his life in just that way. Asked at a televised debate during the Iowa primary in 2000 to name his favourite philosopher, he said, instantly, "Christ" - explaining how, through Christ, he had become a new man.
Here, too, he shares his identity with a very large number of his fellow citizens. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, about 35 per cent of Americans have been "born again". In a survey carried out in April 2004 for the Public Broadcasting Service, 71 per cent of Evangelicals polled said they would vote for George W. Bush if the election were held at the time of the poll. No wonder the White House calls them "the base", that bloc of voters in "Middle America" whose unstinting loyalty to the Republican party and willingness to turn out to vote gives the president a built-in core of support, a support strengthened by the way the Electoral College magnifies the distribution of votes in the south and south-west, areas of Evangelical predominance.
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Bob Woodward, in Plan of Attack, writes that when he asked the president whether he consulted his father, Bush seemed surprised by the question. "There is a higher father that I appeal to."
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But the alcoholic, upper-class, Episcopalian playboy Bush no longer exists. The reborn Bush is a Texas Evangelical Christian, a Methodist, who feels at home among ordinary folks at the Midland Men's Community Bible Study Group in Midland, Texas. He has, in effect, become one of them. He talks like they do and believes what they believe: the Bible is the literal truth. Good and Evil oppose each other. There can be no middle ground. Hence, when Woodward relates how he asked the president whether he had ever doubted his course of action in Iraq, the president replied: "Yeah... I haven't suffered any doubt." "Is that right?" Woodward asked. "Not at all?" "No. And I'm able to convey that to people." To those who had lost sons or daughters in the conflict, he said, "I hope I'm able to convey that in a humble way."
To doubt his policy would be to doubt his God-given calling. Shortly after the State of the Union Message of 2002, in which he had called Iraq, Iran and North Korea "the axis of evil", Bush addressed an audience in Daytona Beach, Florida. "We've got a great opportunity," he said. "As a result of evil, there's some amazing things that are taking place in America. People have begun to challenge the culture of the past that said, 'If it feels good, do it.' This great nation has a chance to change the culture."
In the State of the Union address of January 2003, President Bush repeated his theme of moral transformation: "Our fourth goal is to apply the compassion of America to the deepest problems of America. For so many in our country - the homeless and the fatherless, the addicted - the need is great. Yet there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people."
Non-Evangelicals will not recognise "wonder-working power", but the "base" does. It comes from the refrain of a famous revivalist hymn, composed by Lewis E. Jones at a campfire revival in 1899, "There is Power in the Blood": "There is power, power, wonder-working power / In the blood of the Lamb."
The White House, the cabinet and the Congress of the US all contain strong supporters of Bush's Evangelical crusade. Bush appointed a devout Pentecostalist and member of the very conservative Assemblies of the Church of God, John Ashcroft, to be attorney-general. Michael Gerson, the president's speech writer, graduated with a degree in theology from Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading Evangelical institution. Bush's electoral strategist, Karl Rove, whom many consider the most important member of the entourage, received an honorary degree in May 2004 from the controversial Evangelist, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, at his Liberty University, for his "commitment to conservative ideas". And according to Peter Singer, in his recently published The President of Good & Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, the majority leader of the House of Representatives, Tom DeLay of Texas, has said: "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world - only Christianity." By this, DeLay means "a biblical world view" that rejects the teachings of Charles Darwin. DeLay believes that the shootings at Columbine High School took place "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionised out of some primordial mud".
Exit polls in 2000 showed that 55 per cent of those who voted for Bush placed moral reform as their highest political objective. All the so-called "hot-button issues" of this campaign - conflicts over gay marriage, abortion, guns, feminism or stem-cell research - reflect that. All those issues grow out of what Evangelicals call "secular humanism" - a movement which, they believe, has debauched American life in the form of feminism, moral relativism, bible criticism, Darwinian evolution and, worst of all, abortion. US representative Mark Souder of Indiana, who accepts the Bible as literally true, told the interviewer for "The Jesus Factor", an episode of a PBS documentary on Evangelicals and politics: "I believe that the fundamental change in America was the legalisation of abortion."
For conservative Christians, the election of 2004 represents the ultimate struggle between good and evil in American life. Republican Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma told supporters that a vote against George Bush was a vote for Osama bin Laden. He later strengthened that to comparing it with a vote for Adolf Hitler.
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Like their president, conservative Evangelicals accept a peculiarly American version of Christian rebirth. They rarely mention Christ's command: "Sell all that you have, and give to the poor" (Mark, 10:21). American Christians in general have never obeyed that command. As early as 1648, the Puritan preacher Thomas Shepard claimed that the New World was the Kingdom of God, a covenant between God and the colonists. In today's mega-churches, that message is known as "prosperity preaching". As a disillusioned Evangelical told The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 9 2004, "Prosperity preaching tells us that God wants us all to be super-rich right now." Poverty still exists in America, as Bush argued in the State of the Union address of 2003, because the poor fail to find true Christian charity among their neighbours. Hence his "compassionate conservatism" requires "faith-based initiatives" by local churches and not progressive taxation.
In a survey like this, nuances get flattened. My account of Evangelical Christians concentrates on the majority who place moral reform above social reform, but not all Evangelicals today, nor in the past, have done so. African-American churches share the theology but not the politics of the white churches. Not all white Evangelical churches accept "consumerist forms of worship". Professor Tony Campolo, an evangelical Baptist minister, told an interviewer in the PBS documentary on Evangelicalism that he had counted some 2,000 references in the Bible that command us to help the poor. The main body of Evangelicals ignore that. They have apparently forgotten their long history of radical protest against the evils of this world, their campaign against slavery, or for prison and social reform.
Just as the president sees nothing wrong with his Iraq policy, he can't accept the view that his tax cuts are immoral. Bush is not disturbed by the huge transfer of wealth from poor to rich. He believes returning moral choice and economic liberty to individuals matters more than any obligation on the rich to help the poor. He was entirely consistent when he urged his fellow citizens to react to September 11 by going shopping.
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This version of the Evangelical message has substantial benefits for Bush and the Republican party. Large corporations are delighted to accept the Evangelical attack on the state. They like to see the Federal Communications Commission relax regulations on media mergers; the Federal Power Commission ease strictures on energy companies; the Environmental Protection Agency modify air pollution regulations, and the Interior Department condone logging in the national parks. Bush easily raises record-breaking sums for his presidential campaigns from all the biggest corporations, even though only a few have Evangelical CEOs.
September 11 added urgency to the president's sense of mission. The subsequent reverses - the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the absence of a connection between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaeda terrorists, the failure of Iraqis to greet the Americans as liberators, the mounting death toll among US servicemen and women, the stories of abuse of Iraqi prisoners, the incoherent planning for an Iraqi interim government - none of these has shaken George Bush's faith in God's purpose, or the faith of the "base" in him. His public justifications for making war on Iraq have, of course, changed, but his religious zeal has not lessened. He has repeatedly described Saddam Hussein in the blackest of biblical phrases. In the State of the Union address of 2003, he asserted categorically of Saddam that, "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning."
Fighting evil must be accompanied by doing good. In a recent press conference, the president asserted that the real objective of the war in Iraq was freedom. "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in the world." The Philadelphia Inquirer, in its May 2 2004 edition, asked two theologians, one Evangelical and the other Catholic, what biblical foundation there was for this doctrine. Neither could find any. Greg Thielmann, former acting director of the Office of Strategic Proliferation and Military Affairs in the Department of State, observed recently that, "The main problem was that the senior administration officials have what I call faith-based intelligence. They knew what they wanted the intelligence to show."
"Faith-based intelligence" abroad and "faith-based initiatives" at home reflect the essence of the Bush administration. The president and his Christian followers want nothing less than to transform the domestic values and the international actions of the US. They know that they have divine sanction for their policies. Hence neither doubts nor uncomfortable complexities trouble them. They have accomplished the first stage in their crusade. The next is to win the presidential election of 2004 at whatever cost and by whatever means.
As the Evangelical Centre for Christian Statesmanship in Washington DC puts it, "Today, in our nation's capital, a new call is going forth. It is a call to serve that invites us to embrace God's providential purpose for this nation." That "new call" is how Evangelicals see the administration of George W. Bush.
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