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god save us from god, bush-style

  1. This from the Financial Times....


    Preaching to the converted
    By James Harding
    Published: January 3 2003 21:23 | Last Updated: January 3 2003 21:23

    I recently saw a man walking from the West Wing to the office building next door with a sheaf of White House papers in a dark blue folder and a black leather-bound bible with a scarlet ribbon tucked between its gilt-edged pages. Like most staff in the executive offices of the US president, he had a purposeful walk. He looked too preoccupied to explain where he was going or how the scriptures married with his work.


    It was a Thursday lunchtime and, I was later told, he was probably off to bible study group. Not the Tuesday gathering - there is a White House bible study group that is part of the institution and has been meeting for decades. But one of the crop of new bible study groups that has emerged since George W. Bush moved into the Oval Office and even more so after 9/11.

    "These are stressful jobs," explains one White House staffer who once a week picks up a sandwich and soft drink and joins a bunch of a dozen or more people to discuss the lessons of the Old and New Testament. "People draw strength and guidance from His teachings."

    With Bush in the White House, God is as much as ever at the heart of the American political project. The president starts each day kneeling in prayer, he has told Christian friends. His earliest executive orders called for a national day of prayer and a faith-based war on want. He says he reads a passage from the bible each day and mentioned last year that he was also reading daily devotionals of Oswald Chambers, the Scottish-born Christian thinker, and Billy Graham, the favourite evangelical of modern American presidents.

    As a candidate, Bush said the most important political philosopher in his life was Jesus Christ "because he changed my heart". In office, he has woven faith into his presidency. The chief speechwriter Michael Gerson, a Christian fundamentalist whom the president has nicknamed The Scribe, makes a point of employing biblical language - hence the president's vow at his inauguration that when Americans "see that wounded traveller on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side".

    American presidents have all, in their own ways, professed faith. The US is a country of religious immigrants, blessed by a constitutional freedom to observe their many faiths as they choose. And it is a continent which, even as modernity melted faith in the Old World, has entered the 21st century still doggedly devout - about 85 per cent of Americans tell pollsters they identify with some religious faith. Belief in the Lord has, therefore, sometimes appeared a presidential affectation - the belt to a pair of trousers, which may do little to hold up the pants, but is necessary to be presentable in public.

    With Bush, though, America has the sense that it once again has a chaplain-in-chief. Bill Clinton may have often sounded like a travelling preacher from the South, pitching politics through parables and the verses of the gospel, but his conduct in the Oval Office shamed huge swathes of Christian America and left the sense that providence and the presidency had parted company. Not since Jimmy Carter, who used to teach a bible study class on Sundays when he was in office, has the US had a president with such a powerful personal attachment to the gospel.

    Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, says: "He [Bush] is very serious about his faith . . . It has given him the comfort and capacity to lead."

    But the president's Christian faith also teases at one of the most inflammatory paradoxes of the American political experiment. For a nation forged in the belief that America's mission is pleasing to God and founded on the principle of separation of church and state, it is striking that some of the most contentious debates this year in Washington - over religious communities working to advance the federal agenda, over abortion and, ultimately, over the next appointments to the US Supreme Court - will revolve around the role of religion in public life.

    There was a foretaste of the consternation to come when it emerged that John Ashcroft, the attorney-general who is a Pentecostal Christian, holds a daily prayer meeting in the offices of the Department of Justice each morning at 8.30. America divided between those who drew comfort from the sense that the boss of the national sheriff's department felt himself accountable to a higher authority and those who feared that Thomas Jefferson's cherished "wall" separating church and state was being straddled in the Bush presidency.

    At the beginning of a tense and bloody new century where old religions are stirring distrust, the ambiguous entanglement of faith and power sets the US apart. Bush's faith brings a Christian dimension - whether in perception or policy-making - to the exercise of power as the world's mightiest nation has charged itself with advancing the political transformation of much of the Muslim world.

    To be clear, Bush is not seeking to usher the world's non-believers into the arms of Christendom. Just after the terrorist attacks on America, he said the US would go on a "crusade" to hunt down its enemies. He repented immediately.

    Since then the president has gone out of his way to avoid language which plays into the notion of a coming clash between the Judeo-Christian world and the peoples of Islam. Bush has embraced America's Muslims, celebrating Islam as a religion of peace and saying the terrorists "hijacked" a great faith.

    Bush, a political late bloomer who made a mark in his college days at frat parties, has said that a conversation with the Rev Billy Graham when he was 39 set him on the path to embracing Jesus Christ. It saved him from a growing problem with alcoholism. "I was humbled to learn that God sent His Son to die for a sinner like me," Bush later recalled. Since becoming president, he has been proud of his faith but more private about his Christian beliefs. The White House is acutely aware that as the US pursues policies intended to transform nations in the cradle of Islamic civilisation, it cannot afford to be seen to have an ecumenical commander-in-chief.

    Bush has come, instead, to frame his world vision in almost Manichaean terms, carving the world into a duelling conflict between the realm of God and the realm of Satan - those who are "with us" and those who are with the "evil-doers".

    Bush's moral clarity unnerves people in Europe, an essentially post-religious continent which views as suspect or distasteful people who treat the political podium as a pulpit. Just 20 per cent of Europeans say they attend weekly religious services, while nearly 50 per cent of Americans claim they do. It is a faith gap that has quietly begun to aggravate the US-European relationship and appears to be sending the New and Old Worlds on starkly different paths.

    To the increasingly secular societies of Europe, Bush's firm belief in Christ unsettles humanist non-believers who suspect that unparalleled military might and a born-again Christian's moral conviction make for a gung-ho superpower, over-confident both in the justice of its course and the promise of a righteous victory.

    There are many people in the US, too - and not just the entrenched campaigners for separation of church and state - who are unsettled by public professions of faith from the White House. George Hunsinger, a Presbyterian minister who teaches at the Princeton Theological Seminary, is alarmed at the prospects of a war with Iraq framed as a battle of good and evil. "We have a president who is about to plunge the world into chaos by starting an unjustifiable war and he does that in part by wrapping himself in the mantle of religion," says Prof Hunsinger.

    But, in US electoral terms, there is a far more significant constituency inspired by the devotion of the president. As a born-again Christian, Bush is part of a large, growing and politically crucial segment of American society. Evangelical Protestant communities are mushrooming across the US, while more staid Episcopalian, Lutheran and Methodist churches are struggling to keep congregants in their pews. A survey by the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut last year showed that 58 per cent of new congregations created in the 1990s were evangelical protestant communities.

    Bush, in that sense, is part of what some religious scholars have called a Fourth Great Awakening, similar to the religious revivals in the 1740s, the early 19th century and the 1880s. It has clear political repercussions. For Americans largely vote as they pray. Bush scooped 82 per cent of the conservative Christian vote in the 2000 elections. When Saxby Chambliss shocked the Democrat establishment in the South in November by taking the Georgia Senate seat for the Republicans, he owed a debt of thanks to charismatic Christian communities - 74 per cent of conservative Christians voted for the Republican candidate in Georgia. When asked how big is the role of Christian communities in politics, Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, says: "Not big enough."

    According to his calculation, there are just over 19m evangelical and highly observant Christians in the US, but nearly 4.5m of them did not vote in 2000. Given that four-fifths of them might be expected to support Bush in 2004, Rove would like to see more devout Christians engaged by the US political system.

    One of the things Rove does, backed up by Tim Goeglein, the White House official responsible for Christian outreach, is to remind Christian voters that the president shares their values: "His faith does affect his outlook a lot," says Rove, whose personal outreach to the communities of conservative Christians says much about the Bush White House: Rove, the all-seeing White House political operator, is probably Bush's most influential adviser when it comes to setting the priorities of his presidency.

    The State Department declined to discuss the impact of a devoutly Christian president on the making of US foreign policy. A spokesman said the president's faith was a personal matter and that policy was made in the national interest. But, in recent weeks, the Bush administration has begun to press the case for abstinence to be adopted as a United Nations policy to control population growth. Bush administration policy on Israel is also seen, albeit by a minority in an overwhelmingly pragmatic White House, through a Christian lens.

    Just before Christmas, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary who is one of the most persuasive characters around Bush's cabinet table, called together a small group of religious leaders to the Pentagon. According to one of their number, Chuck Colson, a former Nixon aide who discovered Christianity in the midst of the Watergate scandal, Rumsfeld wanted to discuss the case against Iraq and, in religious and philosophical terms, the notion of a just war. As Washington dispatches more troops to the Gulf in preparation for an ever more likely assault against Iraq, a muscular president is poised to demonstrate his country's might. Behind the force, there is faith



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