Monday, November 28, 2005

God's Choice for President?

President Bush has made clear that religion is an important aspect of his personal life, and of his presidency. During his first presidential campaign, he cited Jesus Christ as the political philosopher he most admires. Just before the 2000 election, in an interview with a website called, Bush said that his personal faith had a significant impact on his political beliefs, and influenced him on matters like Medicare and prescription drugs. Once elected, President Bush established an Office of Faith Based Initiatives in the White House and continued to weave religion into his rhetoric and to cite it as a basis for policy choices, as, for example, in the context of stem cell research and gay marriage.

A recent article in the New Yorker suggests Bush’s merging of religion and his presidency goes even further. Seymour Hersh reports that a former senior official who served in Bush’s first term was told Bush felt God had placed him in office to deal with the war on terror. The former official further explained that Bush privately saw his party’s midterm victories in 2002 as “another manifestation of divine purpose.” Elsewhere, there have been reports that the President said he believed God had told him to “strike down Iraq” before the United States invaded that country.

I do not have Sy Hersh’s sources and of course have no way to independently confirm if his reporting is accurate. But I have no reason not to believe him. He is a respected journalist with a reputation for cultivating reliable sources more in the mold of Deep Throat than Scooter Libby. Let’s assume he is correct. Why does the president feel the need to keep these ideas private? Why not publicly announce his belief that God guides him in Iraq, God placed him in the White House, and elections in his favor are evidence of God’s purpose?

The United States in 2005 does not have a political climate that is hostile to religion. To the contrary, it seems mandatory that candidates for public office openly express their devotion to God. We saw John Kerry’s attempts (sometimes criticized as fumbling or opportunistic) to infuse religion into his campaign last year. It is hard to think of any officeholder, or candidate for high office (Congress or the White House), who is openly agnostic or atheist. Polls show the United States to be the most religious industrialized nation in the world. And most Americans are Christian; a Pew Research Council poll in 2002 showed 82% of Americans identify as Christian. Other polls show that nearly one half of Americans believe the creation story in Genesis is literally correct and about three quarters believe that the miracles described in the Bible actually happened.

Against this backdrop, does the President, or do his advisors, believe there is a limit on what at least some Americans will bear when it comes to the mixing of religion and the presidency? Perhaps the President believes some Americans would find it blasphemous for him to identify as essentially a messenger or tool of divinity. Or perhaps he is concerned critics would ridicule him as a zealot.

None of this is to attack religion. I do not question the President’s, or anyone’s, personal faith. What I do wonder about is a President who might believe God placed him in the White House, God instructed him to make war, and God favored his political party with electoral victory. This is very dangerous ground. If the President believes he is chosen by God, he may believe he can do no wrong, as everything he does is part of God’s plan. Hersh’s article in the New Yorker suggests as much. Hersh’s source, the former senior official, says that when he tried to tell the President we weren’t winning in Iraq, the President didn’t want to hear it. We often hear that the President surrounds himself with yes men and women and that robust debate is not part of his decisionmaking process. Maybe this can be understood in the context of his religious conviction. As Bush puts it, he answers to “a higher father”.

Bush has made religion an integral and public part of his presidency. That means that questions about how his religion affects his decisions are legitimate. This must be done respectfully, of course. No one should denigrate the President’s faith or suggest in any way that religious belief itself is inherently suspect. But Americans have the right to know if their President governs based on a belief that he is God’s instrument, as opposed to the chief executive of a constitutional democracy, answerable to the American people.


Post a Comment

<< Home