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Issue Date:  February 20, 2004

THE FAITH OF GEORGE W. BUSH
By Stephen Mansfield
Tarcher/Penguin, 200 pages, $19.99
Bush's faith-full presidency

Author explores theology, moral judgment that drive the president's choices

Reviewed by ROBIN W. LOVIN

Writing about the faith of presidents is a tricky subject. Some readers will pick up The Faith of George W. Bush hoping for a reverent portrait of a man whose virtues they respect and whose faith they share. Others will be looking for insights into a religious culture that is alien and baffling to them. Still others, no doubt, will hope for a Watergate-style revelation of pious hypocrisies and flawed character.

Stephen Mansfield handles these multiple expectations deftly. Mansfield is a writer and business consultant, and he is most interested in the spiritual and psychological forces that make for effective leadership. He sees much to admire in the story of an aimless young man who reshaped his life in ways that prepared him to lead the nation, but he also sees Bush’s weaknesses and blind spots. His understanding of specifically religious issues is less developed. He draws connections between the culture of evangelical Protestantism and the president’s leadership, but he leaves historical analysis of that culture and critical assessment of its theology to others.

What emerges in Mansfield’s book is a portrait of a leader who came late to the self-discipline and sense of calling that has characterized American Protestantism since its Puritan origins. Over a period of about two years, from 1984 to 1986, George W. Bush quit drinking, gained control of the anger that had sometimes flared up in his family relationships and found a vocation in politics and public service to replace an aimless and unsuccessful career in the oil business. Mansfield picks up a sentence in Bush’s autobiography, in which the president says simply, “My faith frees me.” Mansfield’s explanation of that statement puts it in these terms: “Bush had come to faith as an adult, almost in midlife, and, among all else that his faith did for him, it liberated him to be who he really was.”

This pattern is central to the contemporary evangelical version of the Protestant conversion experience. People driven by personal cravings, peer pressure and career expectations find themselves set free. They are accountable to God, of course, but that means precisely that they are not answerable to other people and their expectations. Over the course of American history, the Catholic discipline of the confessional and the Protestant tradition of mutual admonition have given way to this religious self-reliance that achieves its most characteristic form in evangelical Protestantism. By background and conviction, that is the faith of George W. Bush.

That faith has shaped the Bush presidency especially in response to the crisis of Sept. 11, 2001. Here, Mansfield finds the president’s personal faith to be central to his leadership: “He eschews the theoretical and prefers the simple expressions that lead to action rather than the complex theories that he thinks will lead to perpetual debate. In this case, he preferred to call Saddam an ‘evildoer.’ That, for him, is the case for war. Saddam is evil. He threatens good people. Evildoers have no legitimacy. Removing Saddam is a moral act. Case closed. It is a case built from the psalms of David rather than the ruminations of Augustine.”

It is important to understand what reliance on faith means to the president in this context. Clearly, it does not mean turning to a religious tradition or a religious community for guidance. As former President Carter pointed out in The New York Times shortly before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, Christian tradition provides an exacting standard by which to measure the justice of a war, and an overwhelming majority of America’s denominational leaders agreed that the attack on Iraq did not meet the standard.

The presidentís moral independence is probably a good thing in terms of that historic American ambivalence about public religion. We are generally pleased with the idea of a president who consults God rather than the latest polls when he has to make an important decision, but we would not want someone whispering Godís words into the presidentís ear. Mansfield seems to share the American ambivalence on this point, and this sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to find a direction in the author’s judgments. He is clearly relieved when the president distances himself from the religious right and chooses to be ďpresident of a democracy, rather than the ‘preacher in chief’ his critics thought him to be -- and that some on the right wanted him to be.” Nevertheless, he thinks that Bush’s finest moment came in the memorial service at the National Cathedral shortly after Sept. 11, when he “began to define a theology fit for the nation’s suffering.”

Sometimes, it seems, even the president of a democracy has to be a theologian. At those moments, the professional theologians cannot do the president’s job. What they can remind all of us, however, is that in the long and large tradition of which the faith of George W. Bush is part, calling and judgment go hand in hand and the moral design of which we are a part always retains an element of mystery to those who are its human agents. On the whole, presidents who have understood that theological point have left a better impression on history than those who were simply convinced of their own calling. Compare Lincoln and Truman, for example, with William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Lincoln even managed to articulate that theology for all of us in his Second Inaugural Address. But that point came at the end of a decisive conflict when the clear question was what it all would mean for future reconciliation. Today, we do not yet know what the question is. We do not know what forms of reconciliation will be required at the end of the “war on terrorism,” or where the judgment on us will fall, or what to make of the mystery of justice done by unjustified actions. We can only hope that theologians are not the only people who will reflect on these larger questions that biblical faith raises about this moment in our history.

Robin W. Lovin is the Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University.

National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 2004

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