New scrutiny of role of religion in Bush's policies

The president's rhetoric worries even some evangelicals

President Bush has never been shy about injecting his faith into the public arena - his campaign remark that Jesus Christ was his "favorite political philosopher" was an early signal. But his rising use of religious language and imagery in recent months, especially with regard to the US role in the world, has stirred concern both at home and abroad.

In this year's State of the Union address, for example, Bush quoted an evangelical hymn that refers to the power of Christ. "'There's power, wonder-working power,' in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people," he said.

Now, some critics are wondering whether the influence of Bush's evangelical faith goes beyond public rhetoric to shape his foreign policy regarding Iraq and the Middle East.

With public speculation in full swing, the Christian Century last week insisted that "the American people have a right to know how the president's faith is informing his public policies, not least his design on Iraq."

No one presumes to know how another's personal faith plays out in public life, and the president's spokesman insists that Mr. Bush makes his decisions as a "secular leader."

Not all evangelicals are pleased

Yet among those who share his evangelical Christianity, the satisfaction of having a born-again believer in the White House doesn't necessarily preclude an uneasiness with some of his rhetoric and policies.

Forty evangelical leaders, for instance, wrote the president last summer seeking an "evenhanded US policy" toward Israel and the Palestinians and rejecting "the way some have distorted biblical passages as their rationale for uncritical support" for Israel. Some evangelical groups are close allies of the Sharon government and work in the US to build support.

Still, the infusion of religious conviction into presidential speeches warms many hearts. To one of his most vocal supporters, Bush is simply using the language of American civil religion.

"George Bush is standing squarely in a tradition as old as the country," says Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Lincoln's Second Inaugural address is like a sermon. The Declaration of Independence says we are endowed by our Creator with rights and appeals to God for the success of the Revolutionary cause."

As for the president's frequent remarks on the US leading the fight of good against evil in the world, he adds, "Saddam Hussein is evil, and compared to him we are pure and good."

Others applaud Bush's clarity in a time of national crisis. "He has reintroduced into the culture the language of morality and moral distinctions," says Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, Calif.

Lessons from past presidents

Yet Dr. Mouw worries about explicitly Christian phraseology that Jews and Muslims hear in the light of their own histories. And he sees lessons in how two other presidents communicated their convictions.

Jimmy Carter, for instance, carefully avoided using Christian language in public. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, regularly used the language of Scripture, yet invoked the will of God not for one side or the other in war, but to call everyone to humility, repentance, and reconciliation.

"We may have to go to war in Iraq," Mouw says, but "we are at a place internationally where, if the president does want to use the language of religion, he might do better to admit some of our mistakes. What if he actually asked forgiveness on behalf of a nation that in the past supported Saddam Hussein?"

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."

"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.

Roots of evangelical support for Israel

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.

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