The Jesus Factor

Just watched PBS’ doco on Bush and his faith, The Jesus Factor, which screened tonight on SBS.

Liberal evangelical activist, Jim Wallis’ has an interesting analysis of the trajectory of Bush’s faith:

When I met the president and began talking with him, and listening to what he was saying, I felt that he was sort of a self-help Methodist — meaning, someone whose faith had made a difference in his personal life. Solved some drinking issues and some family issues, and changed him. Gave him purpose. That’s part of Methodism. Always has been. Kind of a 12-step God — you know, changing my life….

Then Sept. 11 came. I think his role changed dramatically, his notion of himself and his place in history, and he became commander in chief of the war on terrorism. The self-help Methodist became now almost a messianic American Calvinist, speaking of the mission of America, and even of his perhaps divine appointment to be president at a time such as this.

This raises some deep and unsettling theological questions, I think, whether there’s a confusion now in the role of church and nation — the body of Christ, the Christian community, what its role is versus the role of the nation.

Wallis is prepared to admit that “calling” and doing “God’s work” is the task of any committed Christian but it is the divisive certainty of Bush’s mission that disturbs him:

But when one believes that you’ve been appointed by God for a particular mission in history, you have to be very careful about that, how you speak about that. Where is the self-reflection in that? Where is the humility in that? Are we asking whether we are being accountable to God’s intentions and purposes? Or are we asking for God’s blessing on our activities? They’re very different things.

I think when we are so sure that God is on our side, and that those who are not with us are against us, or even with the terrorists, that’s taking another step. I believe God is in our world, in our history, in our lives, in our choices. To ask what God’s calling is for me is a fair question, a necessary question, for any Christian. That’s not a problem.

But when we place God on our side of things, that we are now ridding the world of evil — that’s very dangerous, that one nation has this role to rid the world of [evil]. What about the evil we have committed, that we are complicit in? The richest nation in this global economic system, in which 2 billion of God’s children are poor [and] live on less than $2 a day?

Well, there are things to look at ourselves here, if we’re presiding over that global economy. Does this language allow us to look at ourselves, or does it give us a kind of certainty, and a sanction, and even a sense of divine righteousness for our political position? Are we blinded to things that we’re otherwise not willing to look at?

Richard Land the director of the Southern Baptist Convention points out that Bush’s public religiosity and sense of mission is part of an ongoing mainstream religious tradition In American politics:

George W. Bush is standing squarely in the middle of American history and American tradition, and believing in American exceptionalism. Does that mean that America is God’s chosen people? No. No. Does it mean that we believe that an angel still rides in this storm, as they did at the founding? Yes. Yes.

I believe that. I believe that the United States of America has a divinely given responsibility to hold up the flame of freedom, and whenever possible, to advance it. I don’t make any apology for that. That’s part of who I am as an American. Just exactly what does the left think that John F. Kennedy was talking about, when he said, “We’re going to let tyrants of the world beware. We’re willing to go anywhere, bear any price, assume any burden, defend [against] any foe, support any friend, in defense of liberty?”…

But I can’t imagine that there would be a president of the United States in my lifetime — and I was born during the Truman administration — that would not have given some religious context to the events of 9/11. We have to understand that America is a very religious nation. I know this disturbs and perplexes the New York Times, but it is a fact. When the Pew Trust does a study, for instance, they find that [for] somewhere between 65 percent and 70 percent of Americans, religion is very important in their lives. You compare that with Canada where it’s 28 percent, and Great Britain, where it’s 17 percent.

And Doug Wead, a Bush family friend and evangelical political consultant, makes a fascinating comment about the real and the calculated in Bush’s religiosity:

There’s no question that the president’s faith is real, that it’s authentic, that it’s genuine, and there’s no question that it’s calculated. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But that will always be the case for a public figure, regardless of their faith, whether they’re Islamic, or Jewish, or Christian….

Gandhi once said, “He who says that religion and politics don’t mix understands neither one.” I would say that I don’t know when he’s sincere and when he’s calculated, and a reporter for FRONTLINE doesn’t know. George Bush doesn’t know when he’s operating out of a genuine sense of his own faith, or when it’s calculated, and there must be gray areas in between. I think he operates instinctively.

For example, in the Iowa debate, when he said Jesus was his favorite philosopher, it’s very questionable whether that helped him. It didn’t help him, especially in Iowa, especially not by very much. … It happened too late, and it was too shocking to have a great impact on the Iowa caucus. It may have a cumulative effect today. It may be remembered by evangelicals along with other things, and may make them more likely to embrace him in 200[4].