The faith-based presidency

Posted: Dec 24, 2002 12:00 AM
President Bush famously included a rebuke of then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott in remarks to members of religious groups and inner-city charities in Philadelphia in mid-December. Lost in all the coverage, however, was the sheer gusto the president brought to the event promoting his faith-based initiatives. It is an appropriate season for noting that Bush doesn't have just a faith-based agenda -- a collection of relatively minor regulatory and tax changes -- but a faith-based presidency, one made possible by his conversion a decade and a half ago and constantly informed by his personal religiosity. Last January, at a town-hall meeting in California, a Navy chaplain asked Bush how to pray for him and his family. In response, Bush gave an extraordinary statement that in a different time, one before 9/11, probably would have prompted howls of derision from the press. "I believe in the power of prayer," Bush said. "And I have felt the prayers of the American people for me and my family. People say, well, how do you know? I say, well, I can just feel it. "The prayer that I would like America to ask for," he continued, "is to pray for God's protection for our land and our people, that there's a shield of protection, so that if the evil ones try to hit us again, that we've done everything we can, physically, and that there's a spiritual shield that protects the country." A spiritual Strategic Defense Initiative? It sounds almost outlandish enough to belong in a "Saturday Night Live" skit. But the idea has its deep roots in Bush's particular strain of Christianity and in America's historical self-image. Bush's faith is not the formal Episcopalianism of his parents. He is an evangelical who converted after a talk with Billy Graham in 1986. Prayer for evangelicals tends to involve a more direct and personal connection between creature and creator than in other more hierarchical Christian traditions. There is a keen sense that God reaches directly into the world and into the lives of the faithful. This emphasis can take on an almost therapeutic aspect in its language of "changed hearts" and of lives redeemed. Bush, after his conversion, quit drinking cold, and he has spoken most movingly of the transformative power of faith when visiting drug-treatment facilities. Bush's prayer for a spiritual shield for America probably draws on other strains in evangelical Christianity -- the idea popularized by Billy Graham that God actively protects his faithful through angels, and the belief that America, a kind of new Israel, has a special role in redemptive history. But it is also firmly in the American tradition. Abraham Lincoln called America the "almost chosen people." The Federalist Papers include three references to "providence," and during the War of Independence, Congress would annually list the acts of God that had aided the American cause. Especially during times of war, Americans look to God's favor, whether it was George Washington, who always considered a timely fog that allowed his troops to escape Long Island an instance of God's "signal intervention," or Gen. George Patton demanding from a chaplain, then circulating widely among his soldiers, a prayer that the weather lift during the Battle of the Bulge. All of this took on an added significance for Bush after Sept. 11. He was likely talking about himself as well as the nation when, in an address to Congress right after the attacks, he said, "In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment." Bush's faith suffuses his confidence, but it also tempers his war-making with humanity, as in his insistence a year ago that U.S. planes drop food, not just bombs, on Afghanistan. Critics have complained that ordinary Americans haven't been asked to do anything besides spend money to aid the war on terror. But that's not quite true. There's that spiritual shield. If you're so inclined, praying for it might be the most profound contribution of all.