I usually stay with the television channel after Fox News Sunday for the first five minutes of the Rev. Joel Osteen's sermon from Lakewood Church in Houston. He always begins his message with a joke, often funny, sometimes a bit corny, but usually with a nugget of insight if not truth.
The other Sunday he told of a big-game hunter out to get a grizzly bear. He prayed for prey. He tramped through the big woods for hours, but never saw even a trace of a grizzly. Weary and dejected, he finally sat down on a hickory stump and leaned his gun against a nearby sapling, to rest for a while. Suddenly, he looked up to see a mighty grizzly bearing down on him. With no time to reach for his gun, he breathed a desperate prayer: "God, give this bear religion, so he won't kill me." The bear halted dead in his tracks, rose on his hind legs, spread his mighty paws, and looked to the heavens with thanksgiving. "Thank you, God," the bear shouted, "for sending this wonderful meal I'm about to eat."
Mixing religious faith and politics is front-page news, as anyone who reads a newspaper knows, and the pastor's joke mocks the notion that God answers specific requests. But prayer is not about a wish list, and a recent study (financed by a foundation grant of $2.4 million) purported to find that prayers for specific works of God, as in curing disease, are not effective. But the faithful understand that prayer is about seeking the will of God, and being content in it.
President Bush is often criticized, usually by those of no faith, for talking about his faith in the public square, for referring to it as guidance in making public policy, but in doing so he is well within the precedent of those before him as occupants of the Oval Office. The "social gospel" of the 20th century shaped the civil-rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, for example, and this president's policy of "compassionate conservatism," of faith-based initiatives, is an attempt to harness the spiritual energy of believers. Moreover, the president's faith may be even more central to his foreign policy.
George W. Bush is often compared to Woodrow Wilson, whose father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers, and to Ronald Reagan, who saw the world as split into warring camps of good and evil. Elizabeth Edwards Spalding finds another comparison. "When it comes to faith and foreign policy . . . " she writes in the Wilson Quarterly, "it is more fruitful to compare the Methodist Republican Bush with the Baptist Democrat Harry Truman."