Honest questions for W

bush_nimbusBack in June, I took issue with a Time cover story by Nancy Gibbs that included this sentence: “It is as though Bush can’t allow the possibility that the enemy is motivated by its understanding of God’s will lest his critics note that he believes the same of himself.”

Gibbs, joined by her colleague John Dickerson, pursues the idea again this week in a Q&A with Bush, and with a surprising result: he doubts whether members of Al Qaeda are even real theists, or “truly religious.” Let’s go to the Q&A:

You’ve said that you don’t think that they’re religious people.

I don’t.

They’re religiously motivated.

I don’t think people who would believe in an Almighty God would slit somebody’s throat, just like that. I believe that they use religion as a justification for their ideology. But I don’t view killers as truly religious people.

I think this reflects a failure of the president’s religious imagination. To deny that “religious people” can be capable of monstrous acts is, it seems to me, just as foolish as insisting that religious faith invariably leads to monstrous acts.

But here’s a more interesting turn in the conversation, informed by a sharp follow-up:

Faith is important to you. Have you ever prayed for Saddam?


There is that challenge to pray for your enemies.

Absolutely. But you asked me a personal question, Do I pray for him? No, I haven’t. I pray for a lot of things. I pray for the safety of our troops, I pray for those whose hearts are broken because of the decisions I made, I pray for strength, I pray for wisdom. Maybe I will [pray for Saddam], now that you’ve asked the question.

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  • T. R. Valentine

    Frankly, I find the president’s ignorance frightening. He supposedly reads history books — has he never studied the Crusades?? (Plenty of examples of atrocities by those claiming to be religious!)

    I find his unwillingness to accept that others may do things for religious reasons — despite the numerous statements from bin Laden and his ilk that they are acting precisely *because* of their religious beliefs — not a ‘failure of religious imagination’ as suggested by Doug, but a serious and frightening narrow-minded bigotry. No wonder he made a bad situation in the Middle East worse — he doesn’t have a clue about the people who live there.

    Also frightening is that this supposedly ‘Christian’ president hasn’t even *thought* of praying for Saddam.

    This is the best the U.S. has to offer? How terrifying.

  • thecosmopolitan

    An Honest Question for Doug:

    Does this mean you are qualifying your earlier characterization of Gibb’s insight as one `that takes the concept of moral equivalence to a new level of absurdity`?

    If we set the Wayback Machine back to June, you summed up Gibb’s essential point this way: `Got that? If you believe that one God exists, that he is active in human lives and that it’s a good thing to conform your life to God’s will, you too could become a terrorist!

    Yet this morning’s post has you–approvingly, I think–citing her latest iteration that `I think this reflects a failure of the president’s religious imagination. To deny that “religious people” can be capable of monstrous acts is, it seems to me, just as foolish as insisting that religious faith invariably leads to monstrous acts.`

    What’s changed? Has your own thinking evolved on the subject. Where is the absurdity in August that you once found in June?

    Asymptotically as ever,


    P.S. Joseph’s Hough’s ruminations on the inherent danger of monotheism (in a 01.12.2002 New York Times q&a) provide helpful food for thought on this subject, to wit:

    NYTimes Question: “You have said that Christians, to promote peace in a religiously pluralistic world, need to develop a new “theology of religions.” What would that involve? ”

    Hough responds: “It would begin with the recognition that religion is something that we human beings put together in an effort to give some cultural form to our faith. Our faith is a response to the experience of the presence of God.

    “Religion, our rituals, our music, even our theology, is a human attempt to express what we have experienced. Since we have only our human language and symbols to use in expressing our faith, religions differ as much as cultures differ. Therefore, we want to be careful about claiming that one religious form is the only one that is authentic or real.

    “The second element in a new theology of religions would be the development of a greater understanding of religious traditions other than our own. We can hardly evaluate the potential power of another religious tradition if we know nothing about it, and extensive literature is available for us to read and to teach in our churches.

    “Finally, a new Christian theology of religions will involve the recognition that the fomenting of religious conflict has been and still is a theological problem for Christians, because we have made our claim to God’s revelation exclusively ours. Our history of internal conflict and persecution of persons of other religions is a grim reminder that we have killed each other and members of other religions in defending that exclusive claim.

    “Ironically, by the defense of our exclusionary claim, we have often lived a contradiction of the spirit of Jesus Christ. ” (end quote)

    Hough is the President of Union Theological Seminary (NY).

  • http://beingornothingness.blogs.com Stephen

    I thinks President Bush raises a serious question here about the nature of true religiosity. Like him, I do not believe that those who would committ an act of terrorism or murder are truly religious people.

    This does not mean that they do not consider themselves religious, rather I believe that true religiosity, a true religious sense, is not compatible with this type of abhorrent, violent behavior. What the terrorists call religion seems to me to be ideology instead. In my opinion, their claim is a false, distorted religiosity, which isn’t religion at all.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for the honest question, Chris. Rightly or wrongly, I saw more a tone of moral equivalence in Gibbs’ previous article than in this Q&A. I may have read moral equivalence into her article that she did not intend, as Victor Morton suggested in his comments on my June 10 post.

    Then and now, I reject the argument that monotheism in itself leads people to violence. I do not doubt that members of Al Qaeda are motivated, in part, by their religious beliefs. But I’m less ready than Nancy Gibbs to come to the apparent conclusion that they’re motivated almost solely by those beliefs. I don’t think either of us has any way of knowing that.

    If I had to write the June 10 piece again, I probably would shy away from the word “absurdity.”

  • molly

    I may be in error, but didn’t Timothy McVeigh claim he was Christian?

  • http://www.wildfaith.com Darrell Grizzle

    I agree with Doug that monotheism in itself does not lead people to violence. There is currently violence going on perpetrated by Hindu extremists (polytheists) against Christians and Muslims in India. There is also the ongoing legacy of violence by Communist China (atheists) against Buddhists and Christians.

  • http://getreligion.typepad.com/getreligion/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Molly asks:

    > I may be in error, but didn’t Timothy McVeigh claim he was Christian?

    He was interested in Christian Identity, which is shot through with racism, paranoia and heresy. No church I know of takes Christian Identity seriously.

    A priest visited McVeigh before his execution, but if McVeigh embraced a life of forgiveness and reconciliation just before his death, he did a great job of hiding it behind his defiant glower.

  • Joshua Cordell

    Bush is right on with his statement about religious people. Look up the Bible’s definition of “true religion.”

    Religion is a word that we have defined on our own, apart from how God defines it.

  • Rod Dreher

    I think you’re right: the president has a failure of religious imagination. But this is common. I get so tired of hearing the shibboleth repeated again and again that those we identify as “Islamic extremists” have hijacked their religion. The presumption is that no religion could ever justify the kinds of things the jihadis profess and do. Funny, but the more I read about Islam, the less plausible this popular idea seems. Americans seem to think that true religion means being nice, and those who are mean, to say nothing of evil (Evil? What’s that?) cannot, by definition, be sincerely religious.

    History demonstrates otherwise.

  • http://www.ecumenicalinsanity.net Athanasius

    Doug: Love the halo-effect in the photo! I hope the President takes to heart the question about praying for Saddam. And I hope plenty of Christians let him know that, whatever they think of his policies, he’s got no more of a dispensation from Christ’s commandments than any of the rest of us.

  • Joan O.

    Is Athananasius praying for Sadaam?

  • Steven

    Personaly I think that President Bush is completely ignorant; is there not any other religions in this world besides Christianity? What did this country start out in the first place. let me think back to history class… oh yeah, it was to escape the religious prejudice in England, I thought that this coutry was a free one from religious issues! Well ever since Bush stepped into the office it has changed; separation of church and state??!!!

    Bush is ignorant about what makes this country seperate from other countrys: our freedom, this is and i quote from the first ammendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Key word there; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This especialy seperates us from many countries, because we have THAT freedom!!!

    Bush seems not to understand the people from the Middle East, their religion(s) are different from his, and what is sad though is that he makes a clear note that his decisions are based on his religion instead of his intelligence. I would very much like a president that did not do that, more of a president that is intelligent.

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