Notes on the Atrocities
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Wednesday, May 21, 2003  

The question of the President's faith came up again this weekend. Bill Keller wrote an article called "God and George W. Bush" in the Times, concluding, amiably, that the President is not unduly influenced by his religious faith. ("I’ve long suspected the essential fact about Mr. Bush is that God was his 12-step program.") I was prepared to ignore the article, except that I happened across the wonderful blog "Political Aims," in which it was discussed.

The author, Amy Sullivan, also takes a neutral view on the issue. She argues that the President’s faith is, if not benign, then at least doesn’t drive his policy.

Bush's total confidence that his interpretation of religion, politics, baseball, what-have-you is correct reveals an oddly selective reading of biblical history. Instead, Bush combines a much more pedestrian sort of arrogance with the language of religious calling. But when he talks about being on a "path" or feeling "called," he's not granting himself special historical status -- he is simply describing his life in religious terms.

Furthermore, Sullivan argues, criticizing the President for his religious beliefs directs attention away from his much more obvious and dangerous beliefs.

Why should we even care about how we criticize Bush? Because taking him on over the wrong points neutralizes our ability to lodge legitimate complaints. John Ashcroft’s critics made the same mistake during his confirmation hearings when they spent time guffawing over the story that his father anointed him with vegetable oil before he was sworn into the Senate. There are many reasons to be concerned about Ashcroft – his opposition to a desegregation plan in Missouri and his involvement in legislation to criminalize abortion come to mind – but his private religious observance is not one of them. The more we rely on intellectually lazy arguments that ridicule religion, the more vulnerable we are to charges of being “anti-religion,” even when we raise valid concerns.

In fact, if the criticism aimed at the President is merely a secular-humanist pot shot, then I agree with Sullivan. Among liberals, there's certainly a tendency toward smugness about religious faith. Keller even betrays himself on this score (or so it seems to me): "This kind of born-again epiphany is common in much of America -- the red-state version of psychotherapy -- and it creates the kind of faith that is not beset by doubt because the believer knows his life got better in the bargain."

But there's a reason to have legitimate concern about the President's (and John Ashcroft's) beliefs: they may supercede an allegiance to the rule of law. We have elected George W. Bush to uphold the laws of the nation and the constitution. If his allegiance is first to his belief in God, and this belief causes him to make decisions on the nation's behalf, then his religious belief does become a legitimate issue. I've spent some time identifying some actions by the President which make me think this may be the case. Maybe it's not. Either way, it isn't anti-religious nor anti-Christian to raise the question.

It is, however, great to find another blogger out there who’s pushing these questions around.

posted by Jeff | 5:08 PM |
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