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Volume III, Number 9: 9 March 2003

Piety for Piety's Sake

Tim Francis-Wright

Earlier this month, Newsweek published an encomium by Howard Fineman on President Bush and his ardent Christian faith. The article described Bush as a man who faithfully reads books of sermons once, even twice, a day, and who relies on religious metaphor and imagery in his most important speeches. One question that Fineman did not deem to ask was whether all the public piety was for show.

Fineman did not, of course, make his story out of whole cloth. Bush has proclaimed for years his religous fervor. In the 13 December 1999 Republican debate in Des Moines, the organizers asked the candidates which political philosopher or thinker with whom they identified, and why. Most of the candidates took the question seriously. Steve Forbes thought that Locke and Jefferson provided the philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution. Alan Keyes thought that all of the authors of the Constitution were equally important, for the document that they wrote. Orrin Hatch praised Abraham Lincoln, for his quest for equality and freedom, and Ronald Reagan, for his stance against the Soviet Union. John McCain responded that Theodore Roosevelt stood for both reform and national greatness.

But George Bush and Gary Bauer apparently refused to treat the question seriously. Bush claimed that Jesus Christ was his favorite political thinker "because he changed my heart." When pressed for an actual answer, he continued, "when you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as a savior, it ... changes your life and that's what happened to me." Bauer at least quoted scripture and pointed to Christian obligations to unborn children and the poor.

Jesus Christ makes for an odd political philosopher for today's Republican Party. Someday George Bush or Gary Bauer may walk amongst lepers and outcasts, speak about the corruption and sin that come with the love of money, or champion the lot of the poor. I suspect, however, that they will never do such things. Bush and Bauer intended, and succeeded, in linking themselves to today's conservative Christians. It did not matter to them, or to a significant portion of the Repuiblican electorate, that their political philosophy made no sense.

While no one expected Bush to engage in some sciolistic banter about consequentialism or phenomenology, his answer had to disappoint anyone interested in political debate. But the answer had to please the Bush campaign. A significant section of the American public values the veneer of Christianity over any of its substance.

Indeed, the success of Christianity stems directly from its vague and sometimes contradictory roots. Because the Christian Bible is full of contradictions, it encourages a multiplicity of allied faiths that can still disagree on many issues. The same Bible that impelled Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach nonviolence and racial conciliation has also driven the Southern Baptists, a sect born solely to protect American slavery. Christian leaders relied on the faith of their followers to prosecute centuries of violence and hatred against Jews and Moslems in the name of the Crusades. But the same biblical texts have led Christian leaders to protest the spread of nuclear weapons. And devout Christians hold absolutely opposite views on abortion and the death penalty.

Since the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, Bush has repeatedly used words and phrases sure to resonate with the Christian Right. His call for a "crusade" against terrorists surely boosted his esteem among Christians who view the Crusades as just causes, in spite of the innocents killed in the name of Christ. Iraq, Iran, and North Korea made an "axis of evil" despite the utter total lack of any real connection between the three countries. He has many times described God's hand as guiding America's actions. Even his State of the Union address in January described liberty as "God's gift to humanity."

There is little evidence that Bush or his White House applies anything like standard measures of Christian morality to their most important actions. He has not invoked "just war" principles vital to traditional Christian justification for war as a last resort. Instead, he has pointed to the "evil" behind the Iraqi regime, the threats that it poses to its neighbors, its supposed ties to terrorists, or its weapons of mass destruction. (Our very real nuclear weapons have somehow managed to avoid any derogatory tag.)

Just how important Christianity is to Bush in his everyday thinking is debatable. In a story in the 3 December 2001 issue Newsweek, Bush could not recall any particular sermon by the Methodist minister whose church he attends when he stayed at Camp David. Bush did know that "he's just down to earth and doesn't try to get too fancy." Perhaps, for President Bush, Jesus really is the figure who outshines all political philosophers and thinkers. I would hope, however, that Bush would remember more about the weekly seminars on his teachings than the fact that the professor is unpretentious.

Faith, or the lack thereof, is a lousy proxy for morality—the 11 September hijackers saw themselves, of course, as the most devout and ardent of Muslims. George Bush has encouraged the conflation of Christian faith with morality. But worse than equating the two is faking the first.