Bush's Faith

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There's been some attention of late to a recent interview President Bush did with Cynthia McFadden of ABC news. Some of what he's had to say has surprised a lot of people. See links at Daniel Pulliam's GetReligion post for some of that. I have to say that most of what he had to say doesn't surprise me very much. You might be surprised and perhaps skeptical of what he says in this interview if you come with the assumption that Bush is an arrogant, self-absorbed fundamentalist with theologically conservative positions on every religious question, who thinks he can discern God's will obviously and with no hesitation, and who thinks everything he's done is God's will. You'd have to think he's lying about his views and his attitude toward his faith in this interview if you went into it with those assumptions about what he must think. But there was never much evidence to think anything of the sort about him, even though it's a pretty dominant meme on the left (and among some on the right).

Pulliam's post seems a little strange to me, because he talks about how this is true in Europe but doesn't seem to think it's quite as bad in the U.S. Maybe I'm underestimating how bad the coverage in Europe has been, but I'm pretty sure that the coverage in the U.S. has been pretty downright awful. The suggestion that Bush initiated the Iraq war because he heard God tell him to do it is pretty common, even though he never said anything remotely like that. I'm not sure I've seen it asserted in a news story, but opinion journalists trot it out as if it's verified fact, and the quickness of the mainstream media to jump to the idea that Sarah Palin thought such a thing from a sentence that didn't remotely mean that suggests that they were already thinking along such lines with Bush.

Bush all along has given moral reasons for the Iraq invasion and for his opposition to abortion and the killing of embryos for stem cells. He's given secularly-available reasons for his support of the teaching of intelligent design arguments alongside the teaching of standard evolutionary theory. He's given traditional conservative reasoning for the public expression of religious beliefs and public support for faith-based programs and hasn't based it in any claim to special revelation. His resistance to draconian measures to protect the environment and to ward off global warming has largely been because his moderately conservative economic principles oppose such draconian pressure from the government, not because he thinks the Bible says not to care about the environment due to an imminent return of Christ. Yet I've heard some pretty smart people attribute exactly those motivations to him. I do think they'd be surprised by this interview, but I'm not sure it's rational to be surprised by it given that there was never any evidence to attribute the views they attribute to him to begin with.

One genuinely new thing in this interview, as far as I know, is Bush's willingness to say that he doesn't take the Bible literally. As I've discussed before (and see the comments on Pulliam's post for others recognizing the same problem), this is a very unhelpful way to describe things, since there's no one who really takes the Bible entirely literally. When Jesus says he's a vine, he doesn't mean he's a plant rather than an animal. He's speaking metaphorically and thus not literally. When he tells a parable, on the other hand, he's not implying the existence of the characters and events in the parable just because the expressions in the parable are all used literally. I suspect most people who say they don't take the Bible literally are open to seeing some parts of it more like parables. They're not sure Adam and Eve refers to an actual couple when there were no other peopel but might see them as metaphorical for an entire generation of people who rejected God. Or they accept Adam and Eve as a real couple of the first humans, but they don't accept the six-day creation structure as referring to six 24-hour days but rather accomplishing some theological purpose to indicate that God structured creation in certain ways.

This issue isn't about literalism. For a better example of literalism, see Richard Dawkins. This issue is instead about how exactly we think a literary account has to match up with reality to be true, not about whether the words are used literally.

Given that the terms he used are so unhelpful, it's actually pretty unclear what Bush meant, so it doesn't seem as if we're warranted in taking Bush to have said anything theologically more liberal than the current and immediately preceding popes. They both have said that it's theologically acceptable to endorse contemporary evolutionary theory as a Catholic, while neither actually endorsed contemporary evolutionary theory. They both also would insist that the world isn't fully explainable without a creator. This seems to me to be the same general view Bush is trying to express, even if the details are unclear. Should this surprise us about him? Only if we assume him to be a very theologically-conservative six-day creationist. But that's very unlikely for an Ivy-educated, religiously (and otherwise) rebellious mainliner who had a religious conversion in an evangelical context later in life but whose primary congregation in Texas is still mainline (United Methodist) and who attends a mainline service (Episcopalian) most often when in D.C. Is there any reason to expect him to hold to the six-day creationism of the Creation Research Institute?

Another revelation here is his openness to inclusivism, something I've seen people compare to Obama's own inclusivism. It's important to recognize that we did see signs of that right after 9-11, when he said Muslims believe in the same God as Christians. A number of very theologically conservative evangelicals did, in fact, call him not a genuine Christian at that time, for reasons that I don't agree with and have detailed elsewhere.

I should say, though, that there's a difference between a Christian saying (a) that the God  Muslims worship is the true God and (b) that people in other religions can be saved without trusting in Christ explicitly, which is yet a further claim from (c) that people in other religions can get to God without it being based on the cross of Christ at all. Exclusivists can believe that Muslims worship the same God as Christians without believing they do so salvifically. They just would say that Muslims believe a lot of wrong things about God. The inclusivist move of C.S. Lewis is to suggest that possibly some worship Christ while following another religion, but it might still be based on the objective basis of the cross that they're saved. It seems to me that Bush may only be going far enough to consider this a possibility. He certainly didn't assert that there are paths to God that don't have an objective basis in the cross. So I'm sure he thinks (a), and it sounds as if he's open to the possibility of (b), but there's no evidence that he thinks (c).

President-elect Barack Obama, in the 2004 interview that I discussed here, limits his comments about Christ to the "good teacher" and "a pathway to God" kind of thing, which suggests that he doesn't see a need for atonement, certainly not with a necessary condition of having a certain relationship to Christ via the cross. He doesn't even accept the existence of heaven and hell, so the comparison with Bush in this interview is really strained anyway. For these reasons, I'm not sure Bush's openness to inclusivism is anything like Obama's. It's hard for me to see Obama as even clearly a Christian given his theology (and certainly not an evangelical), whereas Bush is perhaps within the bounds of evangelicalism but maybe toward the edges of it if so. There's nothing I've seen from him that makes me question whether he's a Christian at all and even one good sign in this interview that he really does understand the core of the Christian gospel:

It's hard to be Christian period, whether you're president of the United States or whatever, because in order to be a true Christian, you have to accept that God's gift is one of grace and there's nothing you can do to earn God's love, God is love and that ... what's hard is take that love and then change your behavior to honor that love."
This seems to me to be solid evidence that Bush does understand the Christian gospel. I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like that from Obama, but I'm open to seeing evidence to the contrary (particularly if it's later than the 2004 interview and thus might indicate a change). This is such a nice encapsulation of the core of Christianity that it's hard for me to deny that there's at least a prima facie case that Bush really is a genuine Christian in the most important sense. I'd never heard of him saying anything this strong before this interview, so I'd have to say that this does change something of how I think of his faith, just not in the way that most people have been talking about this interview.

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