It is slowly dawning on people that to understand George W., one must understand his religious impulses, which all evidence suggests are intensely important to him. His views are no different from that of the typical evangelical who absorbed his faith from the American Baptist culture. But they merit closer attention when they are held by an arrogant man with his finger on the button and who is contemplating total war.
Concerning this arrogance, Richard Cohen writes that “Bush’s rigidity can come across as smugness. This has always been his least appealing quality, and it was on display, or so I was told, at a lunch he had for network anchors before the State of the Union message. He reportedly came across as cocky, not so much sure of himself as too sure of himself…. Maybe this single-mindedness of the president’s is the product of his deep religious belief — the conviction that he has been chosen for the task of decking Hussein.”
I don’t watch television so I hadn’t seen this aspect of Bush on display — until the other day when I watched a video feed from MSNBC. Bush was holding a press conference with economists who had endorsed his stimulus plan. He took questions after. None of the questions concerned economics. There was a question on Iraq, a question on race quotas, and one other I can’t remember. They were all reasonable. What struck me the most was Bush’s demeanor.
As the questions were being asked, he looked down at the table and around the room, not at the questioner. He impatiently drummed his fingers on the table, as if he knew in advance that nothing could be asked that was really worth asking. His attitude was that if it needed to be known, he would have already have said it. All inquiries were just an imposition on him, an insult to his own sense of certainty. His answers consisted of barking back the stated position, along with a reminder that the position had already been stated. There was no attempt to charm, no attempt to inform, no attempt to hide his disdain.
How does he get away with it? The White House holds all the cards. All the reporters present were there at the permission of the White House. Any reporter who wrote to denounce Bush’s stonewalling, or raise questions about his state of mind, would be quickly barred from future events. The news organization that published that story would be punished as well. The press needs access, and so plays along to prevent reprisal. There’s another element too, namely that most of these reporters have an ideological admiration for the executive state. They may disagree with Bush’s politics, but they adore the power of the office he inhabits.
Bush’s behavior that day probably qualifies as routine, but because I hadn’t seen Bush in action recently, I found it startling. What gives a person that sense of certainty, that swagger that no one but himself ought to be in charge of what is known and what is not known? Power, certainly. Maybe that explanation is enough. And yet, Cohen is right to bring Bush’s religious sensibility into it. There is something recognizably regional and sectarian in his religious way, a product of a doctrinal sensibility that thrives in the Southern region of the United States. It is woven into the culture in myriad way. Bush has adopted it as his own.
In the state of the union address, Bush said the following: “There is power — wonder-working power — in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people.” His cadence in these lines come from the hymn by Lewis E. Jones, a revival hymn from 1899 once sung in the streets to whip up religious frenzy for prohibition (which Gary North calls the “‘last hurrah’ in politics for American fundamentalists”).
“There is power, power, wonder working power,” go the words, “In the precious blood of the Lamb.” The sentiments are classically revivalist. All Bush did was replace Jesus as the source of the wonder-working power with the idealism and faith of the American people. He said this as if everyone should recognize the hymn and the meaning, though Europeans couldn’t possibly, and few even in the West and East Coast of the US could have any idea what he was referencing. It was code designed to liven the hearts of the faithful — the tribe of evangelicals who constitute his strongest support base.
Bush is by birth a member of the Episcopal Church, but because he is “born again” as an adult — long past the “age of accountability” of 10–13 years old when a person born into this religion is supposed to be saved — his religious sense was shaped by a gripping personal experience and an uncritical embrace of evangelical doctrine. This holds to the Calvinist idea of the security of the believer (“once saved, always saved”) but rejects the corollary Calvinist idea that God has predestined all men to salvation or damnation in favor of the view that all must make a choice to accept Jesus’s invitation to salvation. Once the choice is made, salvation is assured.
The faith is classically low church. As for sacraments, there are only two (called ordinances): Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are purely symbolic, social statements by believers designed purely for purposes of public profession. All grace is imparted by the choice of Jesus, after which all sins are cleansed and your permanently valid ticket to Heaven is issued.
The obvious question presents itself: if one is assured of salvation by one’s personal choice, and one thereby becomes constitutionally incapable of committing sins that separate the soul from God, what reason is there to avoid a fall into complete lawlessness? The Presbyterian religion has managed to avoid this fate by placing a strict emphasis on obedience to the law as part of religious obligation, not for purposes of salvation, but to display deference to God’s word. It is precisely the mix of the belief in predestination, combined with the emphasis on strict behavioral controls, that gave Presbyterians the reputation of being “the frozen chosen.”
The evangelical strain, however, has no stodginess deriving from a strong emphasis on law and obedience. The culture of the evangelical religion includes standards for behavior, but they center on pietistic tropes condemning drinking, cursing, gambling, and other sins of the flesh. Rather, the emphasis is on the need to make a one-time choice for good, after which point all struggle is over. In the case of Jimmy Carter’s brand of the Southern Baptist religion, this impulse leads to Progressive politics of using the state to do good works to improve society. For Bush, it works itself out through the arena of foreign policy.
The common element here — and here is where evangelicalism dovetails with Puritanism — is a firm conviction in the purity of the individual believer who has been saved by choice and then by faith alone. The spirit, after all, has been saved, so the believer has little need to police himself on whether he is committing sins of the spirit (despair, presumption, envy, obstinacy, and the like). The spiritually penetrating writings of St. John of the Cross or Thomas Kempis do not resonate at all because, in the words of the hymn Bush quoted, the believer is permanently “free from the burden of sin.” Any remaining impieties are bound up with observably bad behaviors which do not finally impact on the soul. One can “backslide,” but one cannot lose salvation. To do one’s duty as a Christian means not to save oneself — to work out one’s salvation in fear and trembling — but to convince others to assist in crushing the evil that is roaming freely out there in the world.
What this produces is, in the first instance, a notably unreflective faith. Apart from the initial choice to embrace Jesus, there is no spiritual struggle at work, no questioning at the heart of prayer, no self-criticism, no internal moral drama taking place in one’s life. In fact, to doubt at all is to bring into question not only one’s salvation but the entire apparatus of religious doctrine, the core tenet of which is the surety of salvation once it is chosen. The greatest insult one can deliver to one who holds this view is to question the likelihood that someone is going to shoot straight to Heaven when he dies.
Christianity once clearly taught that a king who kills innocents and squanders the people’s money is endangering his immortal soul. By raising this prospect, bishops and priests and theologians have restrained the war-like behavior of princes from the 4th century on. But what if the prince believes that he is assured of salvation because of his own choice, regardless of what the church says? We have here an entirely different constellation of incentives at work. Might Bush believe there is no eternal price to pay for killing thousands, even millions, in a good cause, since there is nothing he could do to endanger his immortal soul?
There is another trait of the evangelical religion with some bearing on understanding Bush’s cockiness. It is the belief in direct revelation from God. Most evangelicals accept this idea without question (polls suggest 2 out of 3). Before every decision in life, they believe, one must “pray about it.” Now, praying is a great thing. But what we have here is not prayer designed to focus the mind and heart on the things of God. The purpose of the prayer in this case is to seek guidance from God directly, in whatever form in which it may be given. God has a will for your life, and it is your job to discover it through direct, one-on-one communication.
Because God doesn’t actually talk in direct words as he does in the Bible, one must look for signs or find a feeling of some sort to discover the messages God is trying send. It is hardly surprising that many people who pray this way come away with messages from God that accord remarkably with what they want to do in any case. The difference is that the evangelical often walks with the conviction that his own subjective impressions and choices have been blessed by God Almighty. It’s hard to argue with that.
Now, I say all this not to ridicule anyone’s religious faith. Of course, it should be clear that these views depart substantially from orthodox Christian doctrine. It is enough of a refutation to note that the combination of important doctrines here (that a person is implacably saved for all eternity from the moment of choosing, combined with the necessity of direct revelation from God) have never been believed by Christians in any part of the world until they became the core of revivalist doctrine in 19th century America. To this day, it is utterly unknown in Europe, which is one reason Europeans find Bush so alarming.
Socially, there is no great harm to these teachings. They have produced good people and good, productive communities. It can be a beautiful faith, but, nonetheless, it is a faith unbound from tradition, unleashed from scholarship, and thoroughly tied to individual experience. That is why it begins to matter when a person who holds these views has his finger on the button, a person who believes that he was personally transformed by a born-again experience, a person who is obviously transfixed by the personal power he possesses. This combination can be dangerous. We may soon find out just how dangerous. Free from the burden of sin, and hearing messages from God, George W. Bush may use his power not to work wonders, but to bring about great harm.