Is W Bush’s faith too liberal?

micangel adamandeve midI realize there are people who read GetReligion who believe that Peggy Noonan is on the payroll of the White House — pick a GOP White House, any GOP White House — and that she is simply a fax machine for NeoCon talking points.

You’re out there. OK, so that makes her Wall Street Journal column today even more interesting and perhaps newsworthy — as part of this breaking-up process of religious and cultural conservatives starting to think about all of the candles they have burned in front of George W. Bush portraits in recent years.

This column contains one paragraph that absolutely burns.

The key paragraph is almost a throwaway, an unplanned uppercut in a column that is about another topic altogether. Sit down and read this section (the italics are in the original) about how ordinary Americans are responding to the, yes, civil war in Iraq:

Much has been strained. We were all concussed by 9/11 — we reeled — and came down where we came down. For the administration, extreme events prompted radical thinking. American exceptionalism was yesterday. They would be universalists, their operating style at once dreamy and aggressive: All men want the same thing, and we’re giving it to them whether they want it or not. Now the dreamers hope to be saved by men — James Baker, Vernon Jordan — they once dismissed as cynics. And the two truest statements on Iraq are, still, Colin Powell’s “You break it, you own it” and Pat Buchanan’s “A constitution doesn’t make a country, a country makes a constitution.” Iraq has a constitution but not a country.

What does this have to do with a weblog that focuses on mainstream coverage of religion?

This Noonan punchline is a flashback to her controversial column after the second W inaugural address, the one in which the president came close to promising a new foreign-policy heaven and a new foreign-policy earth with the United States playing the role of God the Father. What was interesting, Noonan suggested, was that this language seemed to be linked to a kind of liberal idealism — universalism, even — rather than a truly conservative vision of a sinful, fallen world in which humans struggle to work for the good, knowing that perfection is not an option.

Thus, Noonan wrote:

The president’s speech seemed rather heavenish. It was a God-drenched speech. This president, who has been accused of giving too much attention to religious imagery and religious thought, has not let the criticism enter him. God was invoked relentlessly. “The Author of Liberty.” “God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind … the longing of the soul.”

… Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.

To put this in theological terms, Noonan wants to know if this born-again president takes the Fall seriously enough. Is his faith more along the lines of an old liberalism that assumed the world was getting better and better and better, as opposed to a rock-ribbed conservatism that has a dark view of sin and man?

Noonan has lots of evangelical readers, and I wonder if many of them are beginning to realize what she is saying. Perhaps George W. Bush really is a United Methodist.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brian

    Let me see if I get this straight–because Man is Fallen, we have to sit around & accept as inevitable the fact that millions of people should live under horrific tyrannical regimes? “Who is thy neighbor?” Apparently for Ms. Noonan, not Iraqis. Or Iranians. Or North Koreans. Or Zimbabweans (sp?). Or Sudanese. Or Chinese. Or Cubans. Or so on down the line for most of the planet & most of history. You can call her thinking whatever you like (Realism is our standard term), but it’s utterly immoral no matter what you call it.

    Please note that this of course does not mean that the only tool that can or should be used is military force. That’s a strawman that no one believes. There are plenty of situations in which rhetorical & economic pressures are perhaps appropriate (But let’s not pat ourselves on the back that we’re being high-minded & moral for leaving the people in North Korea, etc., in their own secluded hells by telling ourselves that “War Is Not The Answer”). But Ms. Noonan is basically arguing that NO pressure should be applied, because it’s just hopeless. Feh.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Two quick points

    A) Peggy Noonan is not a fax machine for NeoCon talking points, she is the GENERATIOR of NeoCon talking points, and a lot of NeoCon thought. The White House takes it’s talking points from her… or they would if Noonan’s Talking Points weren’t too full of big words.

    B) Brian – Let me put it this way. You are confusing the XVIII Airborne Corps with Samaritan’s Purse. It is great and wonderful to see the U.S. Military running around the world liberating people and buliding nations and generally playing Superman when your entire experience of it comes through five minutes a day of watching Fox News. (At least that was Don Rumsfeld’s experience of it.) When however you and/or yours are amongst those people who spend year after year overseas getting shot at by the people you were told would welcome you as a heroic liberator, well it rather narrows your focus on the issue.

    I am genuinely sorry that the residents of the Greater Fubaristan Metro Area are cold, hungry, poor, and have fewer civil rights than the average McRib Sandwich. Making everyone in Fubaristan happy and rich and free would be a great and wonderful thing. We agree on that. But let me give you a moral trade off. In order to liberate the Fubaris, how many American kids have to get told that Daddy is dead, he won’t ever be coming home, and oh by the way you now have a really cool flag folded like a triangle as a consolation prize? How many American Moms and Dad’s have to get told that they won’t be having any grandkids, but the good news is that MOST of their son is still alive and he’s in Walter Reed and might get to actually move his one remaining arm again with several years of physical therapy?

    The residents of Fubaristan wanted to be a soverign nation (that’s why they kicked the British and/or the French out). Telling them that, as a soverign nation they are therefore responsible for themselves is not “utterly immoral” at all.

    Soldiers are people too, and so are their Moms and Dads and kids and the little boys they leave behind.

    There is a little boy in Colorado, he should be about 8 now, who is 0 and 2 on the Daddy front. His Mom and his bio Dad broke up and when he was a baby and he spent his entire young life wanting a Dad. A couple of years ago he really bonded with Mom’s new boyfriend. Mom and the boyfriend got married and he had a Daddy he really loved, and who totally loved him… for a few months… See Dad’s National Guard unit got sent to Iraq. The tank Dad was driving fell into the river when the dike gave way and Dad didn’t make it out.

    Personally I’d let Fubaristan and all the Fubaris sit and rot under whatever horrific tyrannical regime THEY HAVE LET GOVERN THEM, if it would bring that little boy’s Daddy back to him.

    When I was in the Army I took an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”, NOT to “feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and love my neighbor as myself”. The latter is Samaritan’s Purse’s job, not the XVIII Airborne Corps.

  • Steve

    George W. Bush could be considered a theological liberal but a social conservative. There are many of those in many American “Evangelical” churches. For example, Pres. Bush has stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is wrong since Muslims reject the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ. This can be compared to Willow Creek where they allowed a Muslim Imam preach in their pulpit. No theologically conservative church would either agree with the statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God or allow an Muslim Imam preach in their pulpit.

  • http://www.oca.org NewTrollObserver

    For example, Pres. Bush has stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is wrong since Muslims reject the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ.

    Whether this is wrong or not depends upon one’s interpretation of Christian tradition. It seems to Bush stands with the catholic-apostolic tradition on this issue.

  • http://pomoconservative.blogspot.com Irenaeus of Lyons

    Peggy Noonan… is the GENERATIOR of NeoCon talking points…. The White House takes it’s talking points from her. . . or they would if Noonan’s Talking Points weren’t too full of big words.

    Interesting to see a critique of big words include errors on small words. Generator is obvious; “it’s” = “it is”, while “its” is the possessive I think you wished to use.

    That aside, I’m very sympathetic to your overall postition, Larry.

    Re: Trinity and Divnity of Christ: there really isn’t any other tradition but the catholic (little “c”)/apostolic, until the Reformation. The essential judgments about God and Jesus, if not the precise concepts (Trinitas, coined by Tertullian in the late 2nd century, and the two natures, codified by Chalcedon), are present in the New Testament, truths which the later Church recognized and clarified.

  • http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/2006/10/title.html Roberto Rivera

    The residents of Fubaristan wanted to be a soverign nation (that’s why they kicked the British and/or the French out). Telling them that, as a soverign nation they are therefore responsible for themselves is not “utterly immoral” at all.

    It kind of is if you invaded the country, toppled the only, albeit monstrous, force keeping a semblance of order in Fubaristan without giving more than a few moments thought about what comes next.

    I opposed the invasion of Fubaristan, err, Iraq because, one, I didn’t believe that the kind of pre-emption the President and SecDef were advocating met the jus ad bellum requirements of the Just War Doctrine (a position the Vatican also took) and, two, because I (and a lot of other people) feared that the aftermath would be a pooch screw, which violates the requirement that there be a “reasonable chance of success.” Otherwise, as Larry rightly pointed out, a lot of kids are losing their dads for no good reason.

    Back to Terry’s question: if Mr. Bush is a United Methodist, a lot of evangelical leaders were also strangely warmed. Ross Douthat, inter alia, has argued that what Noonan calls the president’s “dreamy” rhetoric is a manifestation of the meliorist strain of protestant thought. It isn’t limited to the Christian Century: many of the meliorist projects and movements were animated by people and beliefs that were identifiably evangelical.

    After all, the idea that freedom was a universal aspiration and that God is the author of liberty is what drove the abolitionist movement. Does Noonan’s “realism” call that “dreamy” and “disturbing?”

    The problem isn’t so much with the universalist aspirations, although they can be problematic, but, rather, in the way they were applied in this instance: we never asked the Iraqis if they wanted a unitary, multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. In other words, we never asked them what “freedom” meant to them. I agree with Larry that we were under no a priori moral obligation to give them what they wanted but once we destroyed the, once again, admittedly demonic, status quo, trying to coerce, cajole and otherwise force them to adopt “freedom” as we defined it was, at best, a fool’s errand.

    Then again, as “Cobra II,” “The One Percent Doctrine” and “Fiasco” have all amply documented, this war wasn’t really driven by lofty universalist aspirations but, instead, a national security doctrine driven (induced?)by the “concussions” of 9/11.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Interesting thing, that Just War Doctrine. It is pinned on St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for its development. If you look at the why of the doctrine’s existence, in Augustine’s case he argues it is morally right to defend Rome by means of arms. Aquinas was recruiting crusaders to travel to the Holy Land to fight a holy war.

    Not sure about all the Founding Fathers and their faith, I doubt they cared about Original Sin. Does a people rule itself or be ruled by an absolute authority? Back in the Old Testament books of Joshua and Judges God pretty much left details up to the people. Oh, to be sure they had faults–just look at the vicious cycle in Judges. But God didn’t place too many rulers or dictators over the people–Moses when they marched through the desert for forty years and Joshua when they invaded Palestine (land of Canaan).

    I usually like Peggy Noonan’s writing, but her lack of vision amazes me. She praises Ronald Reagan for lofty goals (did she have a crush on that man? She was one of his speech writers). But when W. Bush utters lofty goals she dismisses him as a dreamer. Yeah, let’s not have any dreams and go back to the Carter administration–NOT!

  • Jim Hale

    I remember being shocked during Reagan’s funeral at an inscription, permanentely etched onto one of the walls at the Reagan library reading, “I know in my heart that man is good.” Talk about some bad theology!

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Interesting to see a critique of big words include errors on small words. Generator is obvious; “it’s” = “it is”, while “its” is the possessive I think you wished to use.”

    Man, you got me! Three point shot from the field! ;0D

    Roberto, I have to say I give you credit for being able to say “I opposed the invasion of Fubaristan, err, Iraq because, one, I didn’t believe that the kind of pre-emption the President and SecDef were advocating met the jus ad bellum requirements of the Just War Doctrine (a position the Vatican also took) and, two, because I (and a lot of other people) feared that the aftermath would be a pooch screw, which violates the requirement that there be a “reasonable chance of success.”

    I was all on board with it myself. The plan, as I think, was that Iraq was to be a show piece for the Greater War on Islamofacisim, sort of like the way West Berlin was a show piece for the West in the Cold War. (I don’t like “War on Terror” because as Terry Jones said “It’s well known in philological circles, that it’s very hard for abstract nouns to surrender.”)

    Apparently Rumsfeld assumed that some sort of Konrad Adenauer would magically appear to run Iraq (ignoring the fact that Adenauer had a very different career and education from that of the Iraqis) and that Iraq would be like West Germany, only with oil, and the Iranians and Syrians would see this happy, tollerant, secular, free, rich, capitalist nation, want the same, and all revolt, just like Poland did with Lech Walesa.

    What he didn’t realize that Poland was differnt from Iraq. The Poles had actually been a part of the Western Experience, and having similar values with the rest of the West, had similar desires as the rest of the West. That is NOT true in the Islamic World. The UN said that more books are translated into Spanish in one year than have EVER been translated into Arabic. How can they be Jeffersonians if they never read Jefferson?

    The Protestant Work ethic hasn’t really caught on in the in the Islamic World, err Fubaristan. Over there the Renesance, (not to mention the Age of Reason, and the Age of Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution) literally ARE “just something that happened to other people”.

    Go to http://littlegreenfootballs.com/weblog/?entry=23522_Saudi_Head-Chopper_Discusses_His_Craft&only

    for a fine example of this.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Back on topic, which is NOT the merits/demerits of the war in Iraq/Fubaristan/Snafustan/Terror/Islamofascism. It is on the media coverage of Bush’s faith and/or theology and if it’s liberal, conservative, Southern Methodist, whatever. And, yes, I know there is no Southern Methodists. You have to see my cheek planted firmly in my tongue. :)

  • Larry Rasczak

    Good point John…

    About Liberal Christians, before the radicals took posession of the word “Liberal” back at the Chicago ’68 convention, “Liberalisim” used to be very faith based. (In fact today’s Neo-conservatives say they are just holding true to the same principles and values they had when they were “Liberals” in the pre-68 era.)

    The civil rights movement was led by REVEREND DOCTOR Martin Luther King Jr., and he wasn’t the only religious leader there. Cesar Chavez had a lot of support in Catholic circles, and there was the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, and origninally the NAACP came out of the Abolitionist movement, which was founded by and run by Evangelicals.

    There is plenty of room within Christianity for a “Christian Left”. The reason the Left split with Christianity was that Leftists abandoned tradtional orthodox Christian teaching, on sex, divorce, birth control, abortion, homosexuality, pornography, etc. They began to cherry pick, using only the parts of Christianity that supported their pre-existing political postions. Suddenly the Bible was strongly opposed to Intermediate Range Balistic Missiles, the private ownership of handguns, and sulphur dioxide… but was strangely silent on sex outside of marriage.

    Needless to say this was news to lots of people who had actually READ the Bible and never seen the word “Pershing II” or “greenhouse gas” in it anywhere, but could find “adultery” in their concordance.

    There is certianly room for, probably even a need for, “leftist wing” in Christianity. The problem is that since the late 60′s there hasn’t been a lot of room on the Left for a sincere Christian.

    As a rightwinger I’d LOVE to see a genuine “social GOSPEL” movement come back, (we need it!) instead of the “SOCIAL(ist) gospel” movement that we wound up with.

  • http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/2006/10/title.html Roberto Rivera

    Suddenly the Bible was strongly opposed to Intermediate Range Balistic Missiles, the private ownership of handguns, and sulphur dioxide. . . but was strangely silent on sex outside of marriage.

    This is what I meant when in my response to Master Pulliam’s post about “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” I wrote that while there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to talk about both sex and social justice, in practice, it appears next-to-impossible.

    I don’t know why this is the case but it is: every once-in-a-while you will get someone who can address both with equal fervor and conviction but he’s the exception that proves the rule. My guess, beside temperament, is that it has something to do with the vagaries of media and fund-raising: the audience and donor base for these issues are themselves either/or.

  • Rathje

    It’s no big secret that Bush’s foreign policy is actually a mere rewording of LIBERAL foreign policy. Nothing conservative about it. It’s only natural he’d use a liberal-sort-of-theology to push it.

    Honestly, I think conservatives were simply sick of being “the mean people.” They were sick of being hard-nosed realists looking suspiciously at the rest of the world. They were tired of their liberal counterparts looking all smug about how “we got the foreign policy that LIKES human rights and stuff!”

    They wanted to play too.

    Thus the neoconservatives were born. All the “pure motives” and “good intentions” of the Left combined with the Right’s unwillingness to pay for them.

    A match made in heaven no less!

  • Larry Rasczak

    “the audience and donor base for these issues are themselves either/or.”

    That’s a problem, and thats why we need both a Christian Left and a Christian Right. Jesus wants both sides of the asile to shape up.

    Cool thing though, a pastor at my new Church preached aganst DIVORCE! It was sort of muted, by my ex-Catholic standards, but he was up there saying it! It was doubly impressive because he himself got divorced and remarried before he found Jesus and became an Episcopal Priest. He talked about how his first marrage break up was in part his fault, how he wishes he knew then what he knows now, how Jesus is against divorce.

    As Christians, left and right, we don’t need to hear about the sins we DON’T commit are wrong, we ALL need to hear about how the sins we DO commit displease God.

  • Brian

    Larry: I’ll let my original post stand for itself, and note that you apparently didn’t even read the second paragraph I wrote. I just want to say that your repeated insinuations that you have a more valid & informed opinion than I do because “you and/or yours” have served in the military is absurd, and your underlying assumption is completely wrong.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    For example, Pres. Bush has stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is wrong since Muslims reject the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Christ.

    Whether this is wrong or not depends upon one’s interpretation of Christian tradition. It seems to Bush stands with the catholic-apostolic tradition on this issue.

    I think you will find that any reputable Muslim scholar will also tell you that the deities worshipped by Islam and Christianity are not the same entity for a number of reasons, not just their rejection of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.


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