New scrutiny of role of religion in Bush's policies
The president's rhetoric worries even some evangelicals
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Some express concern, too, about Bush's tendency to demonize the enemy, whether it be Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, or the nations of the "axis of evil."Skip to next paragraph
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"Demonization can produce hatred, and all of a sudden, we're heading toward a battle of civilizations" when we don't have to be, says Robert Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a think tank on religious freedom in St. Davids, Pa.
The Gospel, some evangelicals are quick to note, teaches that the line separating good and evil runs not between nations, but inside every human heart.
Although Bush consistently speaks well of Islam, some Americans worry his religious language makes it easier to connect him and US policy - in the eyes of the world's Muslims - to evangelical preachers who call Islam "an evil religion."
And more are beginning to question how the evangelicalism of Bush, key aides such as Condoleezza Rice, and his political constituency might play a role in Middle East policy.
According to evangelicals, the vast majority of them are very supportive of Israel for religious reasons. "The president certainly knows that and may be influenced by the same things," Mouw says.
But the reasons aren't those usually portrayed by the media. "The idea that evangelicals support Israel because they want to hasten the Second Coming is absolute nonsense," says Dr. Land. "No human being can do anything to hasten or retard that."
Evangelical support rests, Land explains, on God's biblical promise to give the land of Israel to the Jews forever, and on God's statement that he will "bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse the Jews."
That statement holds considerable power among some evangelicals. "There's a strong tendency toward uncritical support of Israel and that verse gets thrown at us whenever we are critical of some policy," says Mouw, one of the leaders to sign the letter to Bush.
"My response to that is that anyone who wants to bless Israel needs to be sure that Israel does justice - the Old Testament prophets loved Israel, but [also] said God was angry with them because they had taken other peoples' houses and land," he adds.
Dr. Seiple is disappointed, too, in Bush's failure to see the moral ambiguity and complexity in the Palestinian-Israeli question. "We went from an honest broker to one-sided emphasis," he says. "It may play well with his base politically, and he might believe it theologically ... but it's not where I would give him high marks for moral leadership."
Even the potential war with Iraq has its biblical resonances. "Iraq as Babylon - I've been hearing that a lot lately," Mouw says. "The two prominent images are the glorious city of Jerusalem and the wicked city of Babylon ... and there's no question [that] the fact Iraq is the site of ancient Babylon is a motif that influences evangelicals."
An intriguing question is the extent to which Americans share the apocalyptic views of some evangelicals that we are heading into the last days of the final battle between good and evil. Polls indicate that some 40 million do.
What's clear is that while evangelicals greatly value the renewed moral tone and religious conviction in the presidency, they, like other Americans, differ over how the president expresses that conviction and the implications for his decisionmaking. Bush has said he tends to make decisions by gut instinct. Many Americans are wondering which religious instincts might hold sway as he acts to determine the course of history.