What Does Bush's Religious Talk Mean?

Analysis of breaking news events.
Feb. 1 2003 6:31 PM

God on Our Side?

What does Bush's religious talk mean?

Seventeen years ago, after seven astronauts died in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, President Reagan told the nation's children, "Sometimes painful things like this happen. … It's all part of taking a chance." The future "belongs to the brave," said Reagan. Not until the end of his remarks, in a quotation from poet John Gillespie Magee, did Reagan mention the divine. The Challenger crew, he concluded, had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" to "touch the face of God."

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Today, after seven astronauts died in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, President Bush, too, spoke of faith and bravery. "These men and women assumed great risk" and showed "courage and daring," said Bush. He quoted Isaiah's prophecy that God watches over the stars: "Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing." Bush concluded, "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. … We can pray that all are safely home."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In moments of tragedy, it's natural to speak of God watching over us. But it isn't clear whether Bush means what Isaiah meant, or what Reagan meant, or even what Bush meant 16 months ago when he spoke of God after the Sept. 11 attacks. There are two senses in which God can watch over us. Only one of them is compatible with the courage praised by Bush and Reagan. The other is the one invoked by the terrorists of Sept. 11 and by Iraqis who are rejoicing today in our misfortune.

When Isaiah says no star is missing and attributes this to God's power, he seems to mean that God physically protects things. But that isn't what Bush means when he says the Columbia astronauts aren't missing. In Bush's words, the reason why the astronauts, like the stars, aren't missing is that God "knows [their] names." This is a God who watches over us in a passive sense. He sees us, comforts us, and remembers us, but he doesn't necessarily protect us. Reagan, too, spoke of God this way. God didn't reach out to save the Challenger astronauts. They reached out to touch Him.

Look back at Bush's speeches after Sept. 11 and you'll see him wrestling with these two ideas of God. On the day of the attacks he spoke of a God who watches over us in a passive sense: "I ask for your prayers for all those who grieve. … I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us." But nine days later, Bush invoked a God who would "watch over the United States" in an active sense: "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them."

It's reassuring to think that God will protect us from tragedy or defeat. But that belief has two dangerous implications. One is that courage is unnecessary and unreal. The crews of Challenger and Columbia weren't actually taking risks or showing bravery, as Reagan and Bush supposed, because their fate was in God's hands. The other implication is that tragedies are God's will. That's what Bush rebuked Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for suggesting when they speculated that Sept. 11 had happened because God had removed his protection from the United States.

Today in Baghdad many people are cheeringColumbia's destruction. "God wants to show that his might is greater than the Americans," Abdul Jabbar al-Quraishi, an Iraqi government employee, told Reuters. That statement is certainly false and despicable. But on a day when six Americans and an Israeli have fallen from the heavens, if you think God is fighting for the United States against Iraq, al-Quraishi has a better case than you do.

Bush was right on Sept. 11 and wrong on Sept. 20. The outcome of war is never certain. In the skies over Baghdad, as in the skies over Texas, God's non-neutrality is a guide, not a promise. If Iraq insists on building weapons of mass destruction, we must fight not because God will protect us, but because He won't.