Bush the evangelist?

Posted: May 09, 2006 8:05 PM
What is happening to George W. Bush is that dissenters are moving from criticism of him to just plain hostility to him. Swings in the public mood that emphatic aren't unknown to American history, though these days they are more lacerating because of the diurnal polls that give lapidary attention to wisps of sentiment.

No doubt about it, the president's popularity is very low, though the exact meaning of that, and the causes of it, aren't obvious. The most amusing, and jauntily informative, depiction of the popularity track was done by Stuart Eugene Thiel, an enterprising student of psephology. One line shows the price of gas, a second line the popularity of President Bush. The lines follow in fascinating parallel. They suggest that if gas went to $5 a gallon, Bush would be impeached. If down to $2 a barrel, he'd be put up for a third term.

Stuff and nonsense, of course -- though not uninteresting. But some charges being leveled against Mr. Bush would seem to be motivated more by this hostility than by analysis, and I have an example, taken from a letter from an old and learned friend. He complains of the "evangelicalism" of the president. "In his third TV debate in the 2000 primaries, Bush said that the political philosopher who had most influenced him was Jesus Christ. Give me a break. Jesus had almost nothing to say about politics, nothing at all directly, and considered politics a distraction."

Well, slow down.

Tom Brokaw is serving as moderator and asks for viewers' questions, getting this: "What political philosopher or thinker ... do you most identify with?"

Candidate Steve Forbes came out with John Locke. Candidate Alan Keyes came out with the Founders. The question was repeated: "Governor Bush, a philosopher-thinker and why."

Bush: "Christ, because he changed my heart."

Questioner: "I think the viewer would like to know more on how he's changed your heart."

Bush: "Well, if they don't know, it's going to be hard to explain. When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the savior, it changes your heart. It changes your life. And that's what happened to me."

So, Mr. Bush interpreted the question as asking something more profound than what political philosopher the candidates were most influenced by, and he came up with the name of the founder of Christianity.

Granted, Jesus can't be turned to on questions having to do with bicameral legislatures or the single tax or divisions of power. The critic was right to say that Jesus had "almost" nothing to say about politics. What he said was that it is right to render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's. That supreme political commandment has kept the exegetes busy for centuries and will do so for centuries ahead.

But probes into Bush's political servitude to Christian dogma aren't conclusively damaging. The critic in question says of Bush that he is a capitalist to the exclusion of "other civilized values, (and) treats the national parks as a playground for snowmobiles. Bush is the first president to insist on drilling in the Arctic wildlife reserve."

Well, that is not so. Reagan's Interior Department recommended drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President George H.W. Bush explicitly recommended it. If one is looking for extra-conventional sources of authority, one is attracted not to those who want to drill for oil in Alaska, but to those who do not. Their refusal to countenance drilling is in the nature of a taboo whose sanction is all but religious in nature, Big Chief Greenhouse no touchum Arctic refuge.

And of course Mr. Bush can hardly endorse unrestrained capitalism and pursue the grace of Christ. Those who worship capitalism to sacramental lengths are defiantly anti-Christian, like Ayn Rand and her utterly unholy Objectivists, and that branch of libertarianism which acknowledges only the market as authority, practical or moral.

Stem-cell research is a question correctly demanding moral, not purely instrumental, discrimination. If a president lists the factor of human life as one consideration to be weighed in making policy on stem-cell research, he should not for that reason be dismissed as superstitious.

Mr. Bush faces a lot of problems, and some of them are correctly informed by religious understandings. For example, Why not permit infanticide? Well, let me explain: Jesus wouldn't approve.