Is Bush Too Christian? Or Not Enough?

Scrutiny over Religion's Role in U.S. Foreign Policy

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 15, 2003 (Zenit.org).- 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 control."

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 for humanity."

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 Catholic influence.

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 negative forms.

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' theory."

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.