The United States is governed by a dangerous religious fanatic. That's how many
opinion writers, domestic and foreign, are describing President George W. Bush.
For Georgie Anne Geyer, writing in the Chicago Tribune on
March 7, the president's intention to invade Iraq "is based primarily on
religious obsession and visions of personal grandiosity."
"The president of the United States of America," she alleged, "sees himself as
part of God's divine plan."
Newsweek dedicated its March 10 cover to Bush's religiosity. And in a
separate opinion article, Martin E. Marty acknowledged that "few doubt that Bush
is sincere in his faith," but fretted about the president's "evident conviction
that he's doing God's will."
Likewise, Jackson Lears, in a March 11 opinion article for the New York Times,
worried that Bush's certitude about his carrying out "divine purpose" can
promote dangerous simplifications and "slide into self-righteousness." As Lears
sees it at the White House, "faith in Providence frees one from having to
consider the role of chance in armed conflict, the least predictable of human
affairs. Between divine will and American know-how, we have everything under
In the London Times on March 1, Stephen Plant wrote: "Bush's supporters
have inherited the idea of manifest destiny. For them war on Iraq is not about
oil, it is America's next date with salvation."
These and similar criticisms have not gone unanswered, even by Bush foes. In the
New York Post on Feb. 18, E.J. Dionne noted that he doesn't have problems
in criticizing the president. But he added: "Can we please stop pretending that
Bush's regular invocations of the Almighty make him some sort of strange
religious fanatic? In this, he is much more typically presidential than he's
painted, especially by our friends abroad."
In a Business Week Online commentary, Stan Crock admitted he was not
always in agreement over the president's use of religious language, but
disagreed that religious fanaticism is behind White House strategy. One of the
administration's leading strategists on Iraq, he observed, is Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a Jew. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not
"speaking in tongues as he talks to General Tommy Franks about war plans."
Fred Barnes, in the March 17 issue of the Weekly Standard, explained that
while Bush readily invokes God, he avoids mention of Jesus Christ, and calls for
tolerance of all faiths. "His comments have been confined to four specific
areas: comforting people in grief, citing faith's ability to improve lives,
commenting on the mysterious ways of providence, and mentioning God's concern
Road map of statecraft
Yet, some commentaries contend that Bush is setting a dangerous precedent by
allowing his faith to influence foreign policy. But even if Christian principles
are behind his decisions, this would be nothing new for the country.
Religion and foreign policy, in fact, have long been entwined in the United
States, notes Leo P. Ribuffo in a collection of essays, "The Influence of Faith:
Religious Groups and U.S. Foreign Policy," edited by Elliott Abrams and
published in 2001. Ribuffo, a history professor at George Washington University,
explained that foreign policy debates throughout the 19th century included
religious themes such as a desire to spread Christianity and fears over undue
In 1898, President William McKinley told Congress that intervention in Cuba
would fulfill American aspirations as a "Christian, peace-loving people," quoted
Ribuffo. During World War I a pair of prominent Presbyterians — President
Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan — were "convinced
that the United States had a special mission in the world," the essay noted.
Religion continued to play a part in foreign policy debates during World War II
and beyond. Yet Ribuffo believes that religion had more of an indirect, and not
a determining, role in foreign policy.
In another essay, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington affirms that "politics and
religion cannot be disentangled." He notes the high correlation between
Christianity and democracy. In many Christian and non-Christian countries, he
observes, religion is central to a nation's identity, in both positive and
Conventional wisdom in past decades has argued that U.S. foreign policy should
avoid entanglement with religion, observed Mark Amstutz, political science
professor at Wheaton College. But religion and religious institutions still play
a vital role in people's lives. Churches and faith-based organizations also play
a role, albeit indirect, in foreign policy, concludes Amstutz. Through offering
ethical perspectives and moral values, churches and religious organizations can
help formulate a foreign policy "road map," he notes.
A previous collection of essays, published in 1994, agreed that basing U.S.
foreign policy on purely material and secular grounds, while ignoring the
importance that religion plays in many countries, is a big mistake. In
"Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft," experts such as Edward Luttwak
and Barry Rubin called for greater focus on the role of religious factors by
those responsible for determining foreign policy.
To say that President Bush is motivated in part by his Christian faith does not
mean that he is pursuing a policy dictated by the churches. The president
worships in the Methodist Church. But, in the opinion of Bishop Melvin Talbert,
the United Methodists' top ecumenical official, expressed in a Newsweek online
interview March 7, "it's clear to us that he is not following the teachings of
his own church or the teachings of churches that believe in a 'just war'
Nor does Bush's religious belief mean that Christians will necessarily agree on
political strategy. Former President Jimmy Carter, well known for his invocation
of Christian principles when in power, expressed his strong disagreement with
the U.S. policy regarding Iraq, in a New York Times article March 9.
Paradoxically, Bush's policy on Iraq is being strongly criticized for ignoring
moral principles, while at the same time secular commentators attack him for
being a religious fanatic.
Outside observers can only speculate as to how much weight religion plays in the
president's decisions. What is clear is that he finds in his faith a source of
personal and moral comfort and strength, along with a series of principles that
help guide his actions. Other considerations — political, economic, military,
etc. — also play a role in decisions, of course.
To argue that a politician should decide policy in a religious and moral vacuum
is to ignore long-standing American traditions of its presidents and political
leaders who have frequently used religious language.
Moreover, seeking to deny the legitimacy of a Christian's political involvement
because of his convictions about the common good is a form of "intolerant
secularism," observed the doctrinal
note on religion and
politicians, recently published by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith. Marginalizing Christianity "would threaten the very spiritual and
cultural foundations of civilization," it said.
In his address Jan. 13 to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, John
Paul II observed: "In effect, the indispensable professional competence of
political leaders can find no legitimation unless it is connected to strong
moral convictions." Many Christian leaders — who think U.S. policy toward Iraq
needs more religious input, not less — might agree on that point. ZE03031501
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