Is George Bush the Christians' Christian?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Oct. 27 2004 6:46 AM

All Ye Faithful

Is George Bush the Christians' Christian?

George Bush
Holy spokesman?

A Democratic lawyer friend of mine now teases his Republican clients by asking whether they want "faith-based" advice or "reality-based" advice. This reflects a new part of the liberal critique of George Bush: that his faith has driven him to be disconnected from reality.

To nonbelievers, this makes total sense. This is faith as in "leap of"—making commitments based on something other than evidence. Of course religion causes close-mindedness. Didn't you watch Inherit the Wind?

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As conservatives have pointed out, this critique has an obvious antireligion foundation. Beyond that, it doesn't accurately describe Bush's decision-making process. By most accounts, the president's basic intellectual make-up was formed long before his faith conversion. If Bush is incurious, it's not God's fault.

Conservatives are right when they say that the faith-makes-you-irrational idea is a gross caricature. What Bush supporters are less willing to admit is that President Bush has helped to promote this caricature that liberals now exploit.

The president repeatedly says he makes decisions based on "instinct" and "gut" and by looking into the hearts of world leaders. He lets it be known that he doesn't read the newspapers. He seems to discourage dissenting viewpoints. He jokes about his poor command of the English language and his lousy grades in school. He is America's most famous evangelical Christian and he's proudly anti-intellectual.

This creates a real dilemma for religious believers—especially evangelical Christians. In the past few decades, evangelical Christianity has seen the blossoming of a movement geared toward disproving the idea that faith must necessarily cause closed-mindedness.

In an influential book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, evangelical scholar Mark Noll wrote that anti-intellectualism is sapping the vibrancy of modern Christianity. Publications like Christianity Today, authors like Lee Strobel and Phillip Yancey, and educational institutions like the Fuller Theological Seminary combine religion with scholarly excellence. For every preacher who says all you need to know is the literal word of the Bible, there is another saying that modern Bible scholarship can help enrich our understanding of Scriptures. For them, faith and reason are not at odds.

Many Americans did not "leap" into their faith but developed it through experience. They feel the presence of the divine, experience that their prayers have been answered, hear the voices of spirits from beyond, or see the majesty of the universe with their own two eyes. This may not be the sort of evidence that secular intellectuals respect, but to believers it is evidence nonetheless—very much based in reality.

Two polls last year showed that 72 percent of people with post-graduate degrees believed in miracles, and 78 percent believe in the survival of the soul after death. I'm certainly not saying all people who have post-graduate degrees are necessarily "reality-based," but presumably they didn't get their medical or legal degrees without at least some affinity for evaluating "evidence." And yet they are religious believers, empirical and faithful.

This is not a new debate. The question of whether one can be intellectual and faithful has bedeviled believers for millennia. Neither George W. Bush nor his political critics will settle it.

But in the consideration of reason and faith, we are left with an interesting question: Bush has actively cultivated the image of the simple man of God; how does that reflect on the rest of America's born-again Christians? Is Bush a helpful spokesman, in the end?

On the one hand, he has brought great comfort to many Christians through his unabashed defense of his faith life. They feel represented at the upper echelons of American society and less persecuted as a result. They believe Bush's faith has helped provide him moral clarity and inner strength. In addition, I believe that Bush's pluralistic approach to faith—his kind words for Islam right after 9/11 and his broad approach to faith-based programs—helped give evangelical Christianity a more tolerant face.

But is it really good for American Christianity to have as its poster boy someone so proudly anti-intellectual? I suspect that believers and nonbelievers would be better off if secular intellectuals showed less contempt for evangelicals and the nation's leading evangelical showed less contempt for intellectuals.

Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.

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