Politics: December 2008 Archives

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.

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