Slate editor Jacob Weisberg set himself a difficult task in trying to describe the content of George W. Bush’s faith, but he does so pretty deftly:
When religiously inclined writers try to describe Bush’s faith, they invariably end up talking about how Bush uses religion, how he relates to other religious people, and what faith means to him. But they seldom say anything about its content. They described all the things his faith is not—fiery, judgmental, dogmatic, exclusive—but don’t discover positions on even the most basic theological issues that divide and define denominations, such as whether the Bible is literally true, whether Christians should evangelize, or whether salvation comes through faith alone. They overlook the curious detail that he seldom goes to church. Often, they end up projecting their own beliefs and assumptions onto his blank screen. [link]
What I think Weisberg is trying to say here is that Bush’s faith is theologically empty; it helps explain why he does things, but it doesn’t really have any theological content. It “does” much more than it “is.” I think it’s a fair question to ask whether it matters whether a politician has a rich and orthodox theology to accompany his faith.
We don’t, after all, elect people in the hope they will believe things; we elect people in the hope they will do things, and by implication not do other things. And when we’re choosing who to vote for, which is usually the only choice most of us have, we hear what they’re promising to do; we listen for whether they speak our language; and we decide what sort of people they are, and what that implies regarding how they’ll behave in the future, dealing with issues and circumstances we can’t anticipate. And in a sense this is where a theology is supposed to come in: it’s supposed to hold a person together, spiritually speaking, and cause what they believe about one thing to matter regarding how they’ll behave when dealing with something similar.
To a degree Weisberg is casting doubt on how sensible this process is: he’s suggesting that Bush more or less spoke our language but it shed no light on what kind of person he was, much less how he’d make decisions.
Of course, a more disturbing but equally reasonable conclusion to draw here is this: that George W. Bush is thoroughly one of us, and we as evangelicals have faiths much like his: devout but unconnected and having no bearing on how we’ll think or act.
To my knowledge only two Evangelicals with ties to the George W. Bush administration have spoken or written about experiences:
- David Kuo, former Deputy Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, published a book in 2006 called Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, about his disappointment with the focus of the Initiatives office and how it was used to deliver votes in key states (notably Ohio) in the 2004 election.
- Doug Wead, former special assistant to George W. Bush, was interviewed by Slate editor Jacob Weisberg for the latter’s 2007 book The Bush Tragedy, excerpted in Slate.
(We’re still waiting for a tell-all book by Michael Gerson, Wheaton graduate and Bush speechwriter, one of the men most responsible for helping Bush as candidate and President speak in Evangelical code in a way his father never could. Gerson is still gainfully employed, so it may be a while before he takes his turn.)
In one of the Slate excerpts [link] Weisberg tells a story about Bush editing his own past, rewriting his apparently true conversion story (from Episcopalianism to a self-styled Methodism) from a by-the-book born-again encounter with Cross walker Arthur Blessitt to a more picturesque story about a walk on a beach with Billy Graham. As Weisberg takes pains to point out, Bush’s conversion story was polished over time; published accounts differ, and Bush himself related the story differently on different occasions. Many of the various elements of his story are true: Billy Graham visited the Bush home in Maine; Graham and Bush conversed; Bush at some point “got right with God.” They just don’t fit together as advertised.
The result is something that was useful as a campaign narrative: Bush had something in common with an important voter bloc, and the published version made better telling than the truth, especially among voters who might find Billy Graham palatable but might be put off by Arthur Blessitt. Weisberg takes Bush’s appropriation of his conversion story as a campaign tool to be indicative of his faith as a whole:
What his faith stories have in common is the way they put George W. Bush’s religious experiences to political use. The beliefs themselves may be entirely genuine. But Bush does not appear to surrender himself to the will of God in the way a conventionally religious person does. If we look closely at his relationship to religion over a period of two decades, we see him repeatedly commandeering God for his exigent needs. His is an instrumentalist, utilitarian faith that puts religion to work for his own purposes.
This is a complaint about Bush that arose more than once during his time in the White House: that there were aspects to his personality that seemed entirely untouched by his faith, whatever it was.
As per usual I’m less interested in Bush than in what the loyalty he got from various evangelical leaders says about Evangelicalism. But I will need to deal with several other things Weisberg says before discussing that.
Here’s a People for the American Way fundraising video from I’m guessing mid-to-late 1992 using footage from the 1992 Republican Convention. It is supposed to show the continuity between Reagan-era Religious Right participation in the Republican Party and Bush-era same, but by and large the differences strike me more than the similarities. First of all, did Dean Wycoff really suggest that the government should execute homosexuals? And did Gene Antonio really suggest that the Nazis were all gay? Whatever happened to those two guys? Wycoff appears to have surfaced as a Bay-area Moral Majority figure just long enough to say a couple of controversial things and disappear; Antonio is evidently still active in the home-schooling movement in the Dominican Republic [link].
Second, what really strikes me is how easily Ronald Reagan speaks our language, and what a hash George H. W. Bush makes of it. Even in these little clips it’s pretty clear that Bush just isn’t capable of talking the talk. Dan and Marilyn Quayle seem totally comfortable by comparison. And it’s important to remember that this is the same Dan Quayle that, according to Jeff Sharlet, agreed to teach a Bible study and then went looking for someone to teach him what the Bible actually said.
It’s also interesting to note that when Phyllis Schlafly is calling out Supreme Court Justices one of them is a Reagan appointee.
David Hartman hosts Bob Guccione in the studio, Jerry Falwell by remote video feed following the 1986 Liberty Federation boycott of 7-11/Southland Corporation.
Guccioni and Falwell trade talking points; Hartman directs traffic. Jerry looks great.
I don’t know how I missed this before, but the Lester Roloff film Freedom’s Last Call is available intact at Google Video.
The Lynchburg paper is reporting that Elmer Towns has been named to replace Ergun Caner (they omit any mention of Dan Mitchell) and add a few more nuggets:
He served as dean of the seminary from 1979 to 1992.
Towns will remain dean of LU’s school of religion.
Towns was not part of the committee [that investigated the Caner matter].
The seminary enrolls 500 residential students and 6,800 online students, Towns said.
Towns also spoke at Liberty Convocation on Wednesday; he announced plans to increase the size of the seminary to 1000 resident students and 10,000 total students.
We still don’t know anything about the committee that investigated the Caner situation, apart from the fact that it was either headed or named by Ron Godwin and may or may not have included Godwin himself.
Here are the most recent numbers from InTrade for the 2012 Republican nomination:
- Romney Bid 26.2 Ask 27.9
- Palin Bid 18.5 Ask 18.7
- Thune Bid 16.7 Ask 20.7
- Pawlenty Bid 10.9 Ask 12.5
- Gingrich Bid 9.4 Ask 10.4
- Daniels Bid 8.5 Ask 9.9
- Huckabee Bid 6.7 Ask 7.9
All these quotes can be had by typing the appropriate string (e.g. 2012. REP.NOM.ROMNEY) into a search engine. Navigation to the appropriate aggregate listing at the InTrade site is a bit cumbersome.
First of all, Mitt Romney is looking more like 2012′s version of Bob Dole: inevitable winner of the Republican nomination, inevitable loser of the election to an incumbent Democrat; right now InTrade has the Republican nominee at about a 40% chance of winning the Presidency. Second, I think the Thune and Palin numbers only look like a dead heat; if Palin lasts until the primary season starts in earnest the primary schedule favors her over Thune at least.
Finally, I don’t understand why there’s any buzz surrounding Mike Huckabee; see e.g. this article from GOP12, where his favorable/unfavorable numbers couldn’t be distinguished from Romney’s in a blind test and this Mark Byron article, where Byron picks Palin and Huckabee as favorites. If I could I’d happily short Huckabee, since he’s two below “the Gingrich line” (any viable candidate must poll as well or better than Newt Gingrich), he has someone to hurdle to reach each of the three major Republican constituencies, he apparently does not have a natural constituency even among the Religious Right, he has to explain how Maurice Clemmons got out of prison, etc.
I may as well come out and say that either Huckabee, as a pastor, had no business leaving his church to become a politician or he was never called to the ministry in the first place. Either way I have no interest in voting for him, sight unseen. The job descriptions for “pastor” and “President” are just too different for anyone to be qualified to do both.
As fundamentalists becoming evangelicals we got involved in politics because of fear stories.
At its heart each story was about losing rights we thought we were guaranteed as Americans under the Constitution: freedom of religion, conscience, assembly, etc. The details varied by issue and story: tax exempt status, government oversight of church organizations and functions, school prayer, religious expression at public occasions, etc. They took place against a background of Cold War church persecution stories, particularly behind the Iron Curtain. We told ourselves these stories for several reasons, including to cultivate a feeling of kinship with the modern persecuted Church, but they tended to galvanize our sense of ourselves as American Christians (or “Eisenhower Christians”), blending our two identities and seeing an assault on one as an assault on the other. We had in a sense participated in the Cold War ideologically, taking our stand against godless Communism, and and somewhere along the line got our American identity mixed up with our sense of ourselves as Christians.
In retrospect a lot of our sense of kinship with the Cold-War-era persecuted Church was pretty shallow; it had a lot to do with reading books about real bravery in the face of persecution (Brother Andrew) and fictional portrayals of persecuted Christians. In my case in particular, Myrna Grant novels about young believers in the Ukrainian underground church helped reinforce the impression that the Cold War was primarily a struggle for religious freedom.
As a result, though, we chose our political affiliation because we were afraid of the ACLU, because they sued to stop school prayer, and certain elements of the federal government because of the ongoing case against Bob Jones University, not for preaching the Gospel, but for violations of civil rights. There were at least a handful of other cases as well, including the case against Lester Roloff, where we saw religious persecution but the legal question was more about government oversight of non-religious functions of religious institutions: health and safety, corporal punishment, fire codes, etc.
But I think I would argue that what had happened was that we had hyphenated our Christianity and our nationality, and we got involved in politics not because of doctrinal or moral issues, but because we believed our rights as Americans had been violated.
The other issues that became hot-button issues: the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, political correctness, gay rights, etc. were initially other people’s issues, and we adopted them as we got more involved politically. They were part of the process of becoming the Religious Right, and making common cause with people we suspected were going to Hell: Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants first, then later Jews and Mormons. Our political handlers sold us on the importance of these issues as they tried with mixed success to turn us into a coalition.
And what did I learn my first online visit to Liberty Convocation? Elmer Towns is replacing Dan Mitchell as dean of the seminary. Readers with long memories may remember that Dan Mitchell replaced someone named Ergun Caner as dean. Mitchell was interim dean; Towns apparently is not.
Issues Etc. is doing a series on something (not sure exactly what) titled “The Apocalyptic Anxiety of Pop-American Christianity” featuring Alfonso Espinosa. The first installment is available from the Issues Etc. archive as an mp3.
I’m always interested to see and hear Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants interpret Evangelicalism, especially regarding issues where we differ. Unfortunately most of them follow a simple pattern:
- A statement of their perception of what Evangelicals believe; this is usually inaccurate, by virtue of taking a single opinion to be normative, by misunderstanding terminology, by importing foreign terminology, by conflating major and minor points, or some combination of the above.
- A statement of what the speaker believes as normative, thereby casting what they’ve just described as being deviant.
Unfortunately Espinosa does both of these, to his detriment. Dispensationalists don’t use the term “secret rapture,” so I have no idea whether what he and host Todd Wilken describe bears any resemblance to what Dispensationalists actually believe. He sets up Tim LaHaye as his straw man in this episode, but LaHaye’s description of the Rapture is anything but secret and invisible. Espinosa also says Evangelicals wander into this particular doctrinal cul-de-sac because we lack “Christ present as Word and sacrament” so we have only an anxious, works-based righteousness and a Christ present in some apocalyptic future, and Evangelical political involvement is a byproduct of this anxiety.
(Also, I have no idea what “Pop-American Christianity” is either, but I take it Espinosa and Wilken mean something awful by it.)
As per usual when I hear Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant academics (Espinosa is apparently a recent PhD and his thesis was on this subject) talk about Evangelicals I wonder if any of them have ever met an Evangelical, or if their understanding is based entirely on academic sources and the word of converts. As I understand it, Evangelicals aren’t lacking “Word and sacrament” as “means of grace.” We understand that simply hearing the Bible read is not enough; we need to read, understand, and follow it ourselves. We understand communion and baptism to be symbols, and “means of grace” to be a legacy of Roman Catholicism and not much else.
Espinosa’s citation of a story from a former Evangelical who is now a Confessional Lutheran, where the teller recounts being frightened as a child by the story of the Rapture rings hollow; many Christians are rightly frightened by various biblical glimpses of Hell, but that doesn’t make Hell a story only fit for scaring children and unfit for adults.
I might gently suggest that because not all Evangelicals have been Dominionist (I think that’s the term Espinosa doesn’t use but probably means), so the straight causal line he draws between these two aspects of contemporary is not warranted.
Perhaps I’m being postmodern here, but I suspect we’d all be better served if Espinosa explained why the two camps (Lutherans and Evangelicals) believe what they believe; that because Luther considered Paul the lens through which the rest of the New Testament should be understood, and because Evangelicals consider all the New Testament authors more or less peers, and because Evangelicals (for better or worse) look for the most literal possible meaning for New Testament writings, the two camps draw different conclusions when reading the Revelation. And of course, because both camps have interpretations for the end of history, which is in the future and therefore unknown, there’s no definite way to decide that one or the other is correct. There’s just (and here’s the postmodern part) a conversation, so we might as well be civil.
As a coda I might add there’s something ironic about devoting a segment to the evils of “Me-Centered Biblical Interpretation” (mp3), calling for the final authority of Scripture properly interpreted (according to either a Confessional Lutheran or Reformed Presbyterian tradition, not sure which), and then opening the show up for listener calls.