Fundamentally, Bush Works on Faith
Ask Bush family members and friends about the intersection between the war on terrorism and George W. Bush’s Christian faith and you get some strong answers.
“George sees this as a religious war,” one family member told us. “He doesn’t have a PC view of this war. His view is that they are trying to kill the Christians. And we the Christians will strike back with more force and more ferocity than they will ever know.”
Family friend Franklin Graham told us: “The president is not stupid. The people who attacked this country did it in the name of their religion. He’s made it clear that we are not at war with Islam. But he understands the implications of what is going on and the spiritual dimensions.”
Critics charge that the president is blindly engaged in a crusade, propelled by a belief in Armageddon that will end in a geopolitical disaster. One has compared his faith to the fundamentalists of Islam. Another calls it downright “frightening.” Do we have something to fear from Bush’s obviously strongly held convictions?
In many respects, questions about the role of faith in Bush’s presidency are a replay of those raised during Ronald Reagan’s administration, when the former president called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and talked about a spiritual battle against communism. Critics then predicted a possible nuclear Armageddon caused by a president bent on fulfilling prophecy. In reality, what Reagan’s faith brought him was a deeper understanding of the Cold War, that it was less about missiles and geopolitics than about core principles. His faith morally clarified the superpower conflict, and according to some dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, encouraged them to further resist the Soviet system.
Faith has played an equally important role in Bush’s administration, morally clarifying for him the war on terrorism and encouraging patience in the light of tremendous pressure. But Bush’s critics have it backward: It’s not so much that Bush thinks God is on his side; rather, he wants to be on God’s side and make the correct moral choices. He doesn’t think God has given him a blank check; rather, to make the correct decisions, he believes he must study and embrace Judeo-Christian principles.
Bush reads the Bible and a devotional every morning. When you compare what he reads and studies with what he says and does publicly, the overlap is stunning.
His readings influence his language. One morning shortly after Sept. 11, Bush got up and read Proverbs 21:15 (New International Version): “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” Soon after, he was calling the terrorists “evildoers.”
Family members and friends told us that his favorite readings in the Bible are Proverbs and Psalms in the Old Testament and parables of the New Testament. During the buildup to the Iraq war, he constantly consulted with advisors, both those who supported and those who opposed military action, an approach we expect from our leaders -- and, for Bush, something that Proverbs counseled: “A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength; for waging war, you need guidance, and for victory, many advisors.”
The president’s interpretation of Jesus’ parables directly influences his moral vision for foreign policy. Rejecting the notion of realpolitik -- that cold, hard self-interest should be the sole guide of policy -- Bush embraces the idea that the United States has a moral obligation to help those in trouble.
His friend Doug Wead, a former aide to George H.W. Bush, recounted for us a discussion he had with the current president a few years ago on the story of the good Samaritan. Wead was reminding Bush of the story about our moral obligation to help strangers in distress when the president, in typically blunt fashion, asked: What if we got there 20 minutes earlier, when the traveler to Jericho was being attacked. Don’t we have an obligation to help him then too? Such thinking not only influenced his decision to liberate Iraq but also fueled his commitment to combat AIDS in Africa.
Bush’s daily reading both supports and challenges his religious beliefs. On March 19, 2003, when bombs began falling on Iraq, he read a sober reminder from minister Oswald Chambers: “Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading.... Faith is rooted in the knowledge of a Person, and one of the biggest traps we fall into is the belief that if we have faith, God will surely lead us to success in the world.”
Bush read Chambers devotionals throughout 2003, and Chambers is hardly what you would call a hawk. “War is the most damnably bad thing,” Chambers wrote. “Because God overrules a thing and brings good out of it does not mean that the thing itself is a good thing.”
Far from making Bush gung-ho, his Bible readings create an unusual cocktail of courage and patience. Family members say the president has read numerous “hair-raising” CIA reports since 9/11 on “losing a city” to a terrorist attack with a dirty bomb or biological weapon. The agency told him that the anthrax letters discovered on Capitol Hill after 9/11 might have killed 100,000 people. In a direct way, though, such dire scenarios steadied Bush. He knew that he would need to take bold and direct action. But he attacked Afghanistan only after serious deliberation and without a sense of retribution.
American presidents have often turned to their faith and God during a time of crisis. Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln sought guidance through prayer and scripture reading. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Reagan frequently spoke about God when trying to understand world events around them. President Bush, far from representing a radical break from this tradition, fits comfortably into it.
Even those who don’t share Bush’s religious convictions should see them as a good thing. His faith compels him to wrestle with ethical questions that less religious men might simply ignore. And his strong faith offers us visible guideposts by which we can evaluate his performance as president. Find me a commander in chief who lacks core convictions rooted in something greater than himself, and you’ll have a leader who lacks an identifiable moral compass and will, accordingly, be prone to drift off course.
Part of Bush’s self-confident resolve perhaps comes from his habit of reading Psalm 55 on the anniversary of 9/11. “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me.... Destructive forces are at work in the city; threats and lies never leave its streets.... Let death take my enemies by surprise; let them go down alive to the grave; for evil finds lodging among them.... Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; He will never let the righteous fall. But you, O God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of corruption; bloodthirsty and deceitful men will not live out half their days. But as for me, I trust in you.”
It is easier to think of the war on terrorism as a struggle over politics or oil. But the reality is that, fundamentally, it is about core beliefs. Just like the arms race was a symptom, and not the cause, of the Cold War, terrorism is a grisly byproduct of virulent Islam’s difficulty in coping with a set of Western beliefs. For Bush, those beliefs have both strengthened and tempered his instincts.