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."
President Truman praised faith as a force for good against the "Bolshevik materialists," for containing communist expansion in the Cold War and for sending troops to save South Korea. The moral challenge as articulated by Mr. Truman linked faith and freedom, inspiring him to confront a foe that denied that "human freedom is born of the belief that man is created equal in the image of God and therefore of governing himself."
When George W. set out to liberate Iraq, his faith contributed to his belief that America had a mission to shape a balance of power to favor freedom. Spalding writes that George W. is less a Wilsonian idealist than a Truman individualist, who believes that our conflicts must be won on moral grounds. Both presidents have drawn on the story of the Good Samaritan for both domestic and foreign policy inspiration.
Mr. Truman looked on the East-West dichotomy as an intellectual and spiritual struggle for men's minds. He saw the Cold War as a battle between the "world of morals" and the "world of no morals." In his second inaugural address, with the threat of terrorism looming large, George W. said that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democracy movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." The message was spiritual in the sense that man will use his free will to create a democracy if there is no tyrant to tyrannize. The elections in Afghanistan and Iraq were thus crucial.
Mr. Truman observed a moral dilemma emerging from the communist rejection of God. George W. sees the evil in radical Islam's rejection of decent and civilized behavior as taught by Judaism, Christianity and the tolerant strain of Islam. Both men regarded the clash of good and evil as central in the global battle for men's minds, with the devil always in the details. Man has free will, but he must sometimes be inspired to choose freedom.